City, WellStone discuss program aimed at improving mental health response
Published on May 13, 2021
During its May 13 meeting, the Huntsville City Council voted to support the continued development of a partnership between the City, Huntsville Police Department (HPD) and WellStone Behavioral Health to develop a Co-Response Program to address mental health-related calls.
The partnership will complement HPD’s existing Mental Health Crisis Response plan, which includes Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) certified officers deployed throughout the department. Development and implementation of the CIT and Co-Response programs are critical steps in HPD’s goal, in partnership with Wellstone, to improve response to citizens suffering mental health crisis and provide alternatives that divert them away from jail and towards mental health care they need.
Leading the Council presentation were Lt. Jon Ware, HPD’s CIT coordinator, and Jeremy Blair, executive director of WellStone Behavioral Health.
“The Co-Response Program wasn’t an idea we started looking at last week or last month,” Blair said. “This is part of an overall vision we’ve had since 2017.”
HPD’s partnership with WellStone, the second phase of a three-part plan, would pair a mental health clinician with an CIT-certified police officer when responding to mental health-related calls. A third phase would allow for diversion of certain calls away from law enforcement response and into a crisis call center staffed with personnel trained for intervention.
More details on that phase will be released in the future.
“Since 2017, we’ve watched other cities across the country successfully set up a Co-Response Program,” Ware said. “We are constantly working to stay on the leading-edge of mental health response and providing a highly skilled clinician is the obvious next step to help our citizens on some of their toughest days.”
A growing concern
Chief Mark McMurray said HPD responds to 150-200 mental health calls each month.
“We hope placing a mental health professional in a patrol car with an officer will take our response to the next level to help determine an underlying issue and eliminate future calls about the same issue,” he said.
The department currently has 75 CIT-certified officers, though HPD expects to certify at least 10 more by the end of June. CIT-certified officers undergo a 40-hour training course by CIT International and continuing education throughout the year.
All HPD officers attend a 16-hour CIT training course providing basic-level skills. The department hopes to have all officers CIT-certified in the future.
Pairing CIT-certified HPD officers with a mental health clinician should result in two positive outcomes – de-escalation of a potentially dangerous scenario and/or those in crisis receiving help instead of going to jail or an emergency room.
The partnership plan calls for the hiring of two full-time, master’s degree level mental health professionals. Each clinician would be paired with a CIT-certified HPD officer and ride in the officer’s patrol car. Together, they would respond in real-time to mental health-related calls.
The plan is for each clinician to work four 10-hour shifts each week, from 2 p.m. until midnight, while they pilot the program. This would allow at least one mental health professional to be on the street during a part of each of the three shifts during the program.
When emergency responders receive a call, the person in crisis would be taken to WellStone’s Crisis Diversion Center. The 10-bed facility recently opened on WellStone’s campus can hold a person in crisis for up to 23 hours. A new Crisis Diversion Center under construction will be able to hold citizens for up to seven days.
“The Crisis Diversion Center is a game-changer for our area,” Blair explained. “It will essentially double the number of mental health psych beds we have in our City and hopefully help keep those in crisis out of jail or the emergency department.”
WellStone plans to start the hiring process for the Co-Response clinicians this summer and have each professional fully trained and on the street by December.
HPD will track the outcomes of the Co-Response calls during the first year to help determine the success of the program. If successful, the City and WellStone hope to expand the program to have at least one Co-Response team always responding to mental health calls.