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Using tech tools for better response to the mental health crisis

It’s crucial that first responders are better equipped to respond to increasing mental health incidents

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Anyone who works as a first responder will likely have daily interactions with people struggling with mental health challenges.

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By Chief Zachary Flores, Sherman Police Department, Texas for EMS1 BrandFocus

Our mental health-policing program in Sherman began with a phone call.

I was approached by the mother of an autistic young man, and she was worried. Like most parents of children with cognitive or mental health challenges, her job was to protect him, and she knew she had a reason to be concerned. Her son had hit a new milestone: he was driving now.

She knew that it was possible that our officers might interact with him as he drove through the city. If they approached him and he didn’t understand the situation, it could escalate. She needed us to know and she desperately wanted to protect both him and our officers.

As chair of the Texoma Behavioral Health Leadership Team, a consortium of leaders throughout our region who work to coordinate mental health resources and services, I’d heard similar stories from other caretakers. They have an often overwhelming challenge in providing the best care possible and the last thing they want is for a situation with law enforcement to escalate. When this mother reached out, I told her that her son had a right to drive, and we’d find a way to alert our officers.

Anyone who works in law enforcement will likely have interactions daily with people struggling with mental health challenges. A June 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that 68 percent of female and 41 percent of male jail inmates had a history of a mental health problem. We know a large percentage of calls to which we send responders will involve someone with an altered mental state: mental illness and/or cognitive disability, or even use of alcohol or drugs. When we get called to an incident involving someone with a mental illness, it’s not usually because of any illegal activity. It’s often because they are in crisis, or causing a disturbance or danger to themselves or others. When we handle it wrong, citizens and officers can get hurt.

Around the same time, we had several cases where a caregiver reported someone missing, and in the midst of the emergency, the family didn’t have a recent photo or couldn’t immediately provide specific information that was necessary for us to assist and put out an alert. We realized that having this information beforehand would allow us to help more.

As a result, we decided to take a deeper look at our public safety software, which already allowed us to collect detailed information. Within our software, we routinely make a notation about issues like the fact that someone is prone to carrying a gun, but we had no system in place to provide officers with information about citizens who have cognitive disabilities or other disorders. With our intuitive CAD and records system at hand already, we saw an opportunity to use it to help solve this problem.

That’s when, along with the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office, we started Project HELP – the Help Emergency Life Plan, which allows caretakers to voluntarily submit information about family members with mental illnesses via an online form. That information is placed in our database as to provide an alert based on address and name, including a photo of the individual, which gives our officers the extra information they need to ensure interactions between those citizens and the police are safer.

We’ve also made mental health training part of our officers’ annual training programs and shared details of our program with other law enforcement agencies in the county. The feedback that we’ve gotten from caretakers has been overwhelmingly positive. They want to partner with us to keep their relatives safe and give everyone, including our agency, peace of mind.

We’d like to expand Project HELP further. We already network to help catch criminals, so why not use our data to help families in neighboring agencies throughout the region? Programs like this cost us no money, but simply require us to think about applying our technology in ways that we may not have ever considered before. We need to be forward-thinking, proactive and responsive to the needs of the community.

Providing our officers with this type of information puts us a step ahead of the game by helping prepare them to deal with this type of situation.