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Ohio city rolls out pilot program to tackle mental health crisis intervention

The program will begin with the training of police officers and paramedics to respond to mental health calls and provide additional follow-up and services

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The city of Shaker Heights is rolling out a mental health crisis intervention program that will pair police officers and fire department paramedics to offer additional resources to patients.

Photo/Shaker Heights Fire Fighters Association

Thomas Jewell

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — A pilot program could leave first responders better equipped with additional training, tools and resources to handle the steady volume of mental health-related calls that come through emergency dispatch.

After months of discussions that included behavioral health professionals and the safety forces, City Council put $100,000 into this year’s budget for a “hybrid” Crisis Response Pilot Program expected to begin with the training of two police officers per shift, along with paramedics in the fire department.

“We estimated that mental health calls amounted to about 15% or 470 for 2019, averaging a little more than one a day,” Chief Administrative Officer Jeri Chaikin told council in a Feb. 8 work session held online. “Some days there might not be any calls. Other days, there might be two — or three.”

And that was before the pandemic, as figures for last year were still being compiled on 9-1-1 calls — both emergency and otherwise — that include disturbances, family or neighbor disputes, trespassing, a suspicious person, substance abuse, addiction or suicide threats.

“With COVID-19, more people are at home, they may be out of work, with family issues or money issues,” Chaikin added. “There’s a lot of stress going on that may have added to our number of calls.”

‘Back and forth’

Fire Chief Patrick Sweeney said that in more than 30 years with the department, “we’ve always had incidences of residents with varying needs for behavioral health services. And historically, we’ve always transported them to the hospital and tried to line them up with a social worker in the emergency room.”

But more often than not, they would be back home within 24 hours, and “we never really had any good follow-up. So we found ourselves going back and forth quite often,” Sweeney added. “Having the ability to provide somebody with the care that they need would help out tremendously.”

Adding to the sense of urgency were renewed calls for social justice in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, among others.

“That led us not only to look at Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, but also police activities,” Chakin said, referring to a series of “Community Conversations” and updated policies, including duty to intervene, bias-free policing and use of reasonable force.

Police Chief Jeffrey DeMuth said the goal of the 40-hour crisis intervention team (CIT) training, provided through the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board is “all about de-escalation techniques.”

“Police officers are very good at identifying substance abuse and addiction, homelessness, or someone in the midst of a mental health crisis,” DeMuth said. “They can identify it, but they really don’t have the capacity to deliver the necessary services and intervention. This program is a possible solution towards applying appropriate services to residents.”

Additional resources

Council members were impressed with the analysis provided, including Anne Williams and Vice Mayor Tres Roeder, who worked closest with city administration on the new approach.

“Sadly In the last year with COVID-19, we’re seeing more people with mental health needs, and we’re not always seeing the funding that’s required to be able to help them,” Roeder said. “For a long time, mental health has been a situation our first responders have been handed to deal with.”

The pilot program provides a chance to “meet our residents where they are, to give them the right person with the right service at the right time,” Roeder added.

Williams said she was happy that the city is moving forward in funding the program, which could include partnering with a local non-profit agency to provide a social worker dedicated specifically to Shaker and available 40 hours per week to work with residents and families — especially frequent callers.

Chaikin said that the demand for available mental health services throughout the county is so overwhelming that Shaker doesn’t always have ready access to them on a case-by-case basis.

While the daily average may seem relatively minor, Councilman Sean Malone pointed out that it works out to roughly one in every six calls for service (CFS), which could warrant more funding in future years.

As for getting the other four cities sharing joint dispatch with Shaker through the Heights-Hillcrest Communications Center, Mayor David Weiss said that their current funding limitations — including the possibility of more crisis intervention training for emergency dispatchers at the HHCC.

Commending the “incredible amount of footwork” that went into developing Shaker’s pilot program, Councilwoman Nancy Moore said that help could also be on the way with the opening of a new county Diversion Center, to be run in part through the ADAMHS Board.

MetroHealth will also be expanding its operations in Cleveland Heights with a 110-bed Behavioral Health and Addiction Services Center, Moore added, with groundbreaking slated for spring and completion in the fall of 2022.

Council members Rob Zimmerman and Carmella Williams asked about the metrics for measuring what success looks like in the pilot program. Williams added that veterans in crisis could also be placed in the care of the Louis Stokes VA Cleveland Medical Center and its affiliates.

Mayor David Weiss noted that part of the significance in establishing the pilot program will be taking a more proactive approach, which could translate into fewer calls to the dispatch center. At the same time there could possibly be more calls, once better services are introduced.

“The rise in mental health issues is not new or surprising,” Weiss said. “The key takeaways are that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model for communities, and the fact there is good work being done here, both locally and nationally. What we have right now is more of a blueprint, and this is a high-level overview of that.”


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