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A beacon of hope for mental health and community-oriented policing

“It’s our responsibility to decriminalize mental illness,” says Sheriff Kalvin Barrett


When Sheriff Kalvin Barrett took office in 2021, he made it clear his tenure would be marked by proactive community engagement, empathy and an unwavering commitment to mental health support.

Photo/Sheriff Kalvin Barrett

As an independent consultant and police/public policy researcher, I am privileged to interview amazing police leaders from across the country for various projects.

While researching trends in police training, I met several chiefs and sheriffs whose creative minds and innovative spirits caught my attention. These dynamic leaders are implementing meaningful change within their departments and communities, and they are seeing tangible results. The most impressive part is that many of them are operating on shoestring budgets, which makes their creativity and motivation even more valuable.

I am honored to showcase these leaders in this multi-article series titled “Pioneers in Policing: Innovative Approaches in Law Enforcement Leadership.”


In the heart of the Midwest stands a shining example of innovative approaches to law enforcement and criminal justice reform. At the forefront of this transformation is Dane County, Wisconsin Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, a dedicated advocate for mental health support and community-oriented policing. “We have an unwavering commitment to remove the stigma of mental health in our profession and in our communities,” Barrett explained. His dedication to these critical issues is not only reshaping law enforcement in the region but also inspiring others across the nation.

‘Decriminalize mental illness’

Barrett took office in 2021. From the beginning, he made it clear his tenure would be marked by proactive community engagement, empathy and an unwavering commitment to mental health support. Barrett understands the importance of forging strong connections between law enforcement and the people it serves and believes that “As leaders in our profession, it is our responsibility to decriminalize mental illness in our criminal justice system.” His department’s objective to maintain the peace is a driving force behind all his decisions. Along with being a peace officer, he is also a scholar, with a deep appreciation for evidence and data. He is now combining these roles to implement transformational change within his department, community and correctional facility.

One of Barrett’s grounding philosophies centers on a holistic and inclusive approach that extends beyond the city limits of Madison, encompassing the often-overlooked 250,000 residents in surrounding rural areas. He champions the voices of these communities, recognizing their unique needs and challenges, underscoring a focused effort to ensure equitable representation and support for all residents. By acknowledging and addressing the distinct concerns of both Madison and the rural areas, Barrett fosters a unified, cohesive community narrative that encompasses the entirety of Dane County.

Barrett’s dedication to mental health solutions manifests in a deeply rooted commitment that transcends conventional boundaries, extending compassion and support to three crucial populations: the community at large, the dedicated personnel within law enforcement and corrections and the often-forgotten residents of correctional facilities.

“Successful mental health initiatives increase our ability to build relationships and solve problems through evidence-based decision-making and procedural justice,” Barrett explained. His visionary leadership embodies a profound understanding of the nuanced challenges faced by these groups, driving an impassioned pursuit of innovative and empathetic approaches aimed at fostering mental well-being, resilience and transformative healing within each arena.

A collaborative effort delivers compassionate care

Barrett recognizes that many of his calls for service are from individuals facing some type of mental health crisis. In response, he has implemented multifaceted strategies to address the critical intersection of mental health and law enforcement, beginning with efforts to ensure his officers receive specialized training in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques. This training equips them with the skills to safely handle situations involving individuals experiencing mental health challenges, emphasizing a compassionate and supportive approach. In fact, four of his deputies now serve as full-time mental health experts. These deputies attended both CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) and advanced CIT training, currently sit on mental health boards, are well-versed in available community resources and deploy with coresponders and embedded crisis workers for mental health calls. This collaborative effort between law enforcement and licensed mental health professionals delivers nuanced, compassionate care during critical incidents.

Barrett’s goal is to eventually get all deputies (including those working in jail facilities) CIT-certified, as he sees this training as a required investment to serve the community. He is also working to implement a Dane County mobile crisis unit. Evidence-based practices like these that link community members to resources in lieu of arrest are shown to reduce future calls for service, reduce uses of force and offer a more educated response to individuals in crisis.

Additionally, Barrett uses data to power evidence-based advocacy for increased policing and resourcing budgets, articulating the imperative correlation between enhanced mental health support, public safety and effective resource allocation. “The Dane County Sheriff’s Office will never stop the cycle of scanning, analysis, response and assessment of our mental health support and service implementations,” Barrett said. His steadfast dedication to data-driven decision-making reinforces the commitment to bolstering mental health resources while ensuring the safety and well-being of Dane County’s residents.


A four-year letterwinner for Wisconsin Football, Sheriff Kalvin Barrett serves as honorary captain for the Wisconsin Badgers.

Photo/Sheriff Kalvin Barrett

Reshaping the landscape of justice and care

Barrett has been a vocal advocate for diverting individuals with mental health issues away from the criminal justice system whenever possible. This proactive approach not only benefits those in need but also reduces the strain on the system. However, for those individuals who do become justice-involved (whether in care or on house arrest), Barrett has implemented several initiatives to enhance their overall care and well-being.

One such innovation includes the addition of 24/7 access to on-site, third-party mental health professionals. Facility residents can request immediate support through deputies or tablets (assigned to each resident at intake), ensuring continuous access to crucial mental health resources. This initiative not only addresses crises but also fosters proactive care, nurturing a supportive environment that prioritizes mental wellness.

Barrett’s commitment to holistic care extends further through a comprehensive classification process, integrating mental health screening and needs assessments. By utilizing these assessments to inform placement decisions (even determining whether an individual should be housed on a top or bottom bunk), the sheriff ensures tailored support and appropriate placement, acknowledging the diverse and nuanced needs of justice-involved individuals. This approach reflects Barrett’s dedication to fostering a system that not only addresses immediate needs but also facilitates long-term well-being and rehabilitation, reshaping the landscape of justice and care within Dane County.

While these are some of Barrett’s current correctional facility initiatives, they pale in comparison to his strategic plan to transform the Dane County Jail into a truly humane and rehabilitative facility, a project on which he’s worked tirelessly on since being elected. His vision and scope of work will be covered separately in an upcoming article for Police1’s sister site, Corrections1.

Mental health support for law enforcement

“A peace officer who is mentally and physically healthy makes for a healthy agency, leading to a healthy response to our communities.”

Recognizing the imperative of addressing mental health within law enforcement, Barrett initiated an advanced wellness program designed to enhance overall well-being and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. This program includes proactive measures to improve wellness outcomes, emphasizing physical and mental health, overcome barriers to seeking support and promoting a culture of open dialogue. He believes “As leaders, it is imperative to break down the mental health stigma in our profession. It is our responsibility to provide our peace officers with resources and create a culture where they feel comfortable sharing their emotions and asking for help.” His program extends beyond sworn staff to also include all nonsworn personnel, as “they are equally important.”

The development of a robust all-volunteer peer support team is a cornerstone of Barrett’s approach to wellness, as he understands members of law enforcement appreciate the opportunity to connect with one of their own during times of stress. This team, composed of dedicated individuals from within the department, serves as a vital resource. Barrett has implemented policies to automatically activate the peer support team during critical incidents, ensuring timely and comprehensive assistance for those impacted by high-stress situations. Members of the team go through continuous training, which they understand is an investment in each other and the department. The team is so highly capable, it even offers assistance to other local departments in times of need.

Furthermore, Barrett’s introduction of “wellness days” on staff members’ birthdays exemplifies his proactive commitment to mental health. On these designated days, staff members engage in a one-hour conversation with a mental health professional, promoting self-reflection and providing a safe space for discussions. Following these sessions, employees are granted the rest of the day off, encouraging them to prioritize their mental well-being and reinforcing the importance of regular mental health check-ins. Every deputy, and the sheriff himself, takes part in these annual wellness days. When asked how this initiative was perceived by staff, Barrett explained the key is to simply articulate the “why.” “Explaining the ‘why’ behind agencywide decisions provides our deputies and professional staff with a thorough understanding of our agency direction, administrative intentions and our trustworthy motives,” he said.

He believes his personnel have come to appreciate the opportunity to have those discussions with professionals, and the implementation of wellness days has led to an increase in repeat visits between personnel and counselors. This initiative is instrumental in fostering a workplace culture that prioritizes mental health, breaks down stigma and provides the necessary support systems for the well-being of deputies and staff.

“Successful implementation of peer support teams, employee assistance programs, chaplain programs and wellness days works well for our sheriff’s office,” Barrett said. “It is essential to approach mental illness the same way we approach physical illness.”

His efforts are working, and the department is seeing results. “Overall, we have healthier deputies and professional staff through all ranks of our sheriff’s office,” Barrett added. “We’re seeing an increase in the unwavering dedication and commitment from agency volunteers. There is an uptick in agency morale with a culture that supports mental health, along with an overwhelming increase in our recruitment and retention.” Most important, though, at a time when officer suicides are a national crisis, “No one will suffer alone.”

Barrett’s innovative programs and approach serve as a model for law enforcement agencies across the United States. Many departments are now looking to Dane County as a source of inspiration for their own efforts to reform and rebuild trust within their communities.


As Sheriff Barrett continues to lead the way, one can only hope his approach becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Photo/Sheriff Kalvin Barrett


In Kalvin Barrett, Dane County, Wisconsin, has found a visionary leader committed to positive change and the well-being of its residents. His tireless efforts to prioritize mental health support and community-oriented policing have not only improved the lives of those he serves but have also set a standard for law enforcement nationwide.

As Barrett continues to lead the way, one can only hope his approach becomes the norm rather than the exception. His story is a testament to the power of compassionate and forward-thinking leadership in law enforcement, and it serves as a reminder that true change is possible when we put the well-being of our communities first.

Follow Sheriff Barrett on LinkedIn.

About Sheriff Kalvin Barrett

Kalvin Barrett is currently serving as the 53rd Dane County Sheriff. He was appointed by Governor Tony Evers following the retirement of former Sheriff, David Mahoney. Kalvin brings over a decade of experience as a peace officer, educator, and trainer to the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and continues the work of building an agency that reflects and responds to the communities it serves.

Originally from the San Diego area, Kalvin came to Madison in 2000 to attend the University of Wisconsin and to play football for the Wisconsin Badgers under legendary coach Barry Alvarez. Kalvin graduated in 2004 with a degree in sociology. During this time, he fell in love with the community and culture of Dane County.

Kalvin then moved to Texas to inspire junior high students as a science teacher and coach. In 2009, he returned to Dane County to begin his career as a peace officer, starting as a deputy at the Dane County Sheriff’s Office. In 2011, he joined the Sun Prairie Police Department as the first Black officer hired in the department’s history. Kalvin served as a Wisconsin State Fair Park Police Officer assigned to the dignitary protection team since 2019.

Most recently, Kalvin was an instructor at Madison College and a Faculty Director of the Criminal Justice Studies Program emphasizing community-oriented policing, professional development and diversity, among other topics. Kalvin was the lead Defense and Arrest Tactics instructor in the Madison College Law Enforcement Academy, and taught fundamentals of criminal justice, and agency policy as well.

Kalvin completed a master’s degree in Criminal Justice in 2020. Kalvin and his wife have two daughters who enjoy the outdoors and community service.

NEXT: How a Nebraska police chief has leveraged technology and predictive policing to decrease crime

Dr. Michelle Gundy is a researcher, consultant, veteran and SME in the fields of communication, trauma and policing (both civilian and officer trauma). She is a doctor of education in organizational change and leadership with graduate and undergraduate degrees in communications. She educates members of law enforcement on the emotional, physical, neurobiological and physiological effects of trauma and how it relates to the field of policing.