Gazette: Police, Social Worker Join Forces for Mental-Health Calls

Police officers are being asked more and more to act as social workers.

Now, Janesville officers are getting help from a real social worker in dealing with people having mental-health crises.

“I wish we had enough money to do it at every police department,” said Lt. Mike Blaser, the department’s lead crisis intervention officer.

“We’re not social workers. We’re not psychotherapists. We have a lot of experience (and training), but having someone who has gone to school for this and has expertise in that arena is very helpful,” Blaser said.

A social worker who responds to emergencies with officers is part of a pilot project that officials hope they can expand. It also highlights a serious problem in American policing.

About 25 percent of police calls nationwide involve mental illness, said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore, and about 25 percent of police shootings are of people with mental illness.

And it’s estimated that people who suffer from mental illness are 16 percent more likely to be shot by police.

Moore said some of his officers have estimated as much as 40 percent of their calls have a mental-illness element, although Janesville police have not had to take a life in these circumstances, at least not yet.

“When these crisis events go bad, it’s a tragedy because there is potential harm done to the mental-health consumer, harm to that family; there’s ham to the officer. These officers don’t desire to use that level of force, and officers often don’t finish out their careers because of that stress,” Moore said.

Moore was referring to the fact that police officers tend to leave policing after they have had to take a life or faced some other high-stress tragedy.

“Knowing these facts, why would we wait around for the next crisis and police use of force?” Moore asked. “I believe it’s important to address issues of mental illness before the crisis occurs.”

Janesville police already are trained in mental-health crisis intervention, and they recently began a joint program with Rock County Human Services so police get information when going to a call that a person involved has mental-health problems and gives tips on how to handle individual situations.

Now the two agencies have added this pilot program in the person of Wisteria Gunnink, who works for Rock County Crisis Intervention but has part-time office hours at the Janesville Police Department.

County Human Services Director Kate Luster said the hope is to gather data to show that having Gunnink on scene with officers will get people the mental-health treatment they need more quickly and keep some of them out of jails and courts. The result should be savings in government mental-health costs, although pinpointing those cost savings will be difficult, Luster said.

Gunnink is developing a police officer’s “radio ear” so she can respond quickly to emergencies with officers, Blaser said.

Once a scene is safe, Gunnink can talk to the person experiencing the crisis and determine what needs to be done: get him to outpatient treatment in some cases, get him committed to a hospital in others.

Gunnink and other county crisis workers do this all the time but not as quickly.

“Being at residences gives us much greater insight as to what’s going on with an individual, versus us meeting them at a hospital,” Gunnink said.

And sometimes it keeps them from being taken to a hospital altogether, which might have happened if police were operating on their own.

Gunnink can access confidential information about patients that police can’t see. She might even know a person’s history and can connect the person to professionals already treating him or her.

Crisis Intervention normally has two to three workers available for the entire county at any given time, so it’s convenient to have Gunnink available, Blaser said.

Officials hope that positioning the expertise on the front end will save on recovery time and costs later on.

“Early in this process, we want to identify people who may have mental-health needs and intervene so their behavioral symptoms don’t become criminalized,” leading to jail rather than treatment, Luster said.

Putting someone in jail often worsens mental illness, and a criminal record can raise barriers to housing and employment, Luster noted.

Luster hopes the early intervention will also help dispel the notion that people with mental illness are often dangerous. They are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, she said.

Anne Quaerna, a registered nurse and director of emergency services at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, is enthused about the partnership. She said ER professionals and police don’t always know if a person is receiving mental-health treatment, but if Gunnink can access that information, it could keep a patient from being taken to an emergency room.

Mental-health emergencies are a drain on ER services. They have increased 156 percent at Mercy since 2015, and length of stay in the ER is increasing, Quaerna said.

That time in the ER is part of a longer process of getting a person in a crisis to the right kind of treatment, Blaser said.

After a medical evaluation and possibly treatment at the local hospital comes a transfer to a hospital with a psych unit that will take the patient, most often outside the county, which takes officers anywhere from a few hours to more than a day.

And a person in crisis might have to be handcuffed and might be fearful of police, but they have to spend all that time with a person they fear, Blaser said.

“If we can limit the delay for a patient, that’s going to provide a better outcome,” he said.

“The Janesville Police Department has been a champion of this kind of collaboration between law enforcement and mental health, and Chief Moore has been a true leader in prioritizing this, and we’re grateful for the opportunity,” Luster said.

“We have had great relationships with (Rock County) Human Services, and I think in many communities, people in various disciplines don’t talk and work collaboratively to solve these issues. Shame on them because it works so well with the people we have here in Rock County,” Moore said.

Police and Gunnink will soon end the three-month pilot program, and then it will be up to higher-ups to decide whether money in the county human services budget should be shifted to continuing or expanding the partnership.

To read the original story, click here.

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