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$1.4M in grants to help N.J. cops on mental health calls, divert offenders to drug treatment

The grant will also help defendants charged with non-violent crimes avoid prison by seeking treatment

By Matt Gray

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.J. — The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office will use more than $1 million in federal grants to provide local police with tools to de-escalate encounters with those suffering from mental illness, and to steer offenders struggling with addiction out of the criminal justice system and into treatment.

Details of the two new grants, which total more than $1.4 million, were announced during a virtual press conference Tuesday morning featuring county Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck, political leaders and representatives from local law enforcement and health care agencies.

A $543,046 Law Enforcement Behavioral Health Responses grant will focus on how police can best interact with someone suffering from mental illness, including cases involving substance abuse.

Under the program, law enforcement will partner with Inspira Health to embed a social worker in the Millville Police Department “to increase access to justice through appropriate clinical care,” Webb-McRae said.

This will build on work Millville is already doing to assist its homeless and at-risk populations, she said. Additional funds will be sought to pair social workers with Bridgeton and Vineland police departments, the prosecutor added.

The program also includes countywide training of officers in crisis intervention and deescalation. This training will give officers the tools to know when a mental health professional is needed, while also ensuring safety for those experts.

“We don’t intend to put any lay worker into harm’s way,” McRae said. “When we train and we work with our mental health professionals, and we allow them to train us, we all can have a better response.”

Another element of the effort is creating a 24/7 on-call crisis response team that would assist police and protect the public during incidents involving mental health.

“We’ve had some critical incidents in Cumberland County that we know were the result of mental health,” Webb-McRae said, adding that she wants to ensure any officer responding to a scene has the resources available when a call involves mental health.

All police officers statewide are being trained in de-escalation techniques, she noted, and the new local effort will take this process a step further.

“It will be of particular interest to me to see how having mental health professionals available to them on call at any time will enhance our responses to calls for crisis that are actually mental health cries or help,” Webb-McRae said.

She thanked local police chiefs, some of whom attended the press conference, for embracing the notion of police as “guardians” of their communities.

Cumberland County has the highest rate of distressed individuals in the state, and has a suicide rate that rose 40% between 2010 and 2020, Inspira Health President and CEO Amy Mansue noted. She talked about the importance of breaking down silos between mental health and law enforcement disciplines, and praised everyone getting involved in the initiative.

“We’ve got to try some new and innovative ideas,” she said. “This will not be solved by one of us. It will only be solved by all of us.”

The second grant, which totals $900,000, will offer legal diversion along with treatment services for those struggling with addiction who have been charged with a crime.

While state Drug Courts, recently renamed Recovery Courts, work to help defendants charged with non-violent crimes avoid prison by seeking treatment, this new effort would work on the front end before an offender enters the court system. Eligible offenses would include simple drug possession charges, theft and shoplifting.

“We will be able to divert individuals from the criminal justice system who are committing crimes really related to addiction and dangle the carrot of dismissing their charges over their head if they comply with the treatment recommendations,” Webb-McRae said.

The program will work in conjunction with the county Department of Human Services through its outpatient FirstStep Clinic and Capital Recovery Center.

These new initiatives dovetail with a program the state launched last year in Cumberland County called ARRIVE Together — or “Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence & Escalation” — Bruck noted Tuesday. Under that program, troopers at New Jersey State Police barracks in the county pair up with mental health professionals when responding to certain kinds of calls.

Cumberland County was chosen because of a recognized need for these services, according to Bruck. “It’s a portion of the state that’s too often overlooked,” he said.

He praised the county for leading the way on new initiatives like those presented Tuesday.

“It’s no surprise that Cumberland County sought these grants and received them, because Cumberland County has been at the forefront of creative and innovative ways of using grant money in order to create a better, safer criminal justice system,” he said.

Webb-McRae announced a year-long project in October to improve how police address juvenile crime, both in an effort to reduce crime, but also improve how police and the community interact.

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