Dayton-area police agencies using special teams on mental health calls

Five local law enforcement agencies hope to reduce repeat 911 calls and jail admissions involving people with mental illness by embedding mental health professionals with police officers.

Dayton, Vandalia, Kettering, Butler Twp. and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office have launched pilot programs that partner officers with intervention specialists.

Multiple jurisdictions last year saw sharp increases in mental health calls for service. Local officials say they want to help people dealing with crises avoid jail, while also freeing up officers to focus on other public safety concerns and priorities.

“The (crisis intervention) teams have been able to provide support to over 190 residents and their families in Harrison, Jefferson and Washington townships,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck. “Of those individuals served, approximately 40% accepted referral to treatment services and 95% avoided incarceration.”

At its last meeting, the Dayton City Commission approved a memorandum of understanding with Eastway Behavioral Healthcare that will pay the group $120,000 to provide two mental health professionals to go out with police officers on specific-types of calls.

The funding comes from Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS), which is financially supporting the pilot programs in the other four jurisdictions as well.

Eastway’s caseworkers can help community members who are in immediate crisis and provide referrals and follow up to ensure they get needed services, said Cybil Saum-Johnson, chief operating officer with Eastway.

Since 2003, ADAMHS has partnered with police agencies in the county to host crisis intervention team academies.

The academies provide officers advanced training to recognize when people are experiencing a mental health crisis and identify opportunities to link them with treatment instead of sending them to jail, said Samantha Elder, ADAMHS’ director of strategic initiatives and communication.

For the last three years, ADAMHS has offered companion courses for police dispatchers and call takers, and the mobile crisis team pilot is the next step forward, officials say.

“The mental health specialists will be able to provide real-time connection to needed services and provide valuable information to officers on scene,” said Jodi Long, ADAMHS’ associate director. “We anticipate individuals will have less contact with law enforcement over time by ensuring referrals are made to appropriate agencies and their needs are met.”

The Dayton Police Department used to have a therapist who worked with its crisis intervention team between 2017 to 2018, but grant funding ran out and was not renewed and the worker was let go, said Dayton police Detective Patty Tackett, coordinator of the Mobile Crisis Response Team.

The ADAMHS-supported pilot program that began last fall provides two mental health professionals who assist a team of four officers and one EMT as they encounter and interact with people struggling with mental illness, Tackett said.

Mental health issues in the community came into sharper focus during the COVID-19 crisis, because many people believe it exacerbated existing challenges related to housing, financial security and access to health care.

The Dayton Police Department says it received 5,489 mental health calls in 2020, which was up 38% from the average call volume of the prior three years.

Local health care providers, law enforcement agencies and social service agencies regularly meet to collaborate and they have identified some “frequent flyers” ― community members who are the source of repeat 911 calls and who regularly end up arrested, jailed or committed via pink slips, Tackett said.

Partner organizations try to connect these community members with services and resources that can address underlying issues, such as homelessness, substance abuse, psychological disorders and unmet medication needs, she said.

One man who was homeless for more than a decade constantly was in and out of jail, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

Tackett said they were able to connect him with services that made a big difference in his well-being and life. He was jailed just once last year.

Dayton’s mobile crisis response team recently helped a veteran in his 60s who was evicted and who was unwilling to go to a homeless shelter, which put him at risk of freezing to death on the streets, especially given the severe winter weather that has slammed the region, Tackett said.

But team members intervened and helped find a temporary place for him at the hospital, and they are working on finding him longer-term housing, she said.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office’s crisis intervention team also uses “co-responders” from Eastway to try to de-escalate situations involving people struggling with mental health problems and connect them to needed services, said Sheriff Rob Streck.

“The intent is to utilize community resources and divert someone in crisis from coming to jail,” Streck said.

The sheriff said his office implemented the crisis intervention teams last summer, which was timely since mental health calls for service increased about 33% in the first half of 2020.

The sheriff’s office’s program is designed to be proactive to try to reduce future mental health calls, utilizing outreach and follow-up, the sheriff said.

The pilot program already has produced promising results, Streck said, considering the sheriff’s office ended last year with a 4% increase in mental health calls, even after the early-year spike.

A crisis intervention specialist from South Community started working with the Kettering Police Department in January.

The specialist responds to mental health calls and conducts follow-ups with at-risk individuals, and also assists with getting them professional help and training officers, a spokesperson said.

Vandalia’s pilot program ensures people in crisis get the help they need, while also freeing up officers to move on more quickly to the next service call, said Rich Hopkins, Vandalia’s communications manager.

The Vandalia Police Department’s program began early last year, and the department shares a full-time crisis counselor with the Butler Twp. police department.

“Obviously, our long-term goal here is to reduce the amount of time that police officers are tied up dealing with certain crises, that may not necessarily need a police officer, but need some other type of community resource,” said Vandalia police Chief Kurt Althouse.

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