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What Iowa law enforcement is doing to better respond to mental illness

It’s impossible to talk about changes to the mental health system without discussing the role of law enforcement. 

NAMI Iowa has previously written about how a shortage of adequate mental health resources and facilities affects not only people in need of treatment, but also local police departments who are often called to intervene instead. 

When a department is called to respond to someone experiencing a severe mental health or behavioral crisis, a person may be arrested and incarcerated if there are no community-based mental health services available nearby. 

Fortunately, law enforcement departments across Iowa are taking action in their communities to better respond to mental health crises and reduce the number of people who end up in jail. 

Last October, Iowa held its first-ever Stepping Up Statewide Conference in Des Moines, which the Iowa State Association of Counties organized and NAMI Iowa sponsored. Over 300 county officials, including sheriffs, supervisors and jail administrators attended. 

According to Peggy Huppert, Executive Director of NAMI Iowa, Stepping Up is a national initiative which encourages county sheriff departments to pledge to “reduce arrests and incarcerations of people with serious mental illness.”

Since sheriff departments operate jails, Huppert said they are on the front line in dealing with individuals with mental illness. 

However, more and more individual police departments across the state are also taking steps to address serious mental illness. Johnson County, Dubuque and Mason City are only a few places where such action is being taken. 

Last March, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported that first responders from around the state received a week of crisis intervention team (CIT) training in Iowa City. The purpose of the training was to help law enforcement in situations involving someone having a mental health crisis. 

Johnson County jail alternatives administrator Jessica Peckover explained that, a year later, the training has led to a noticeable improvement in the way officers in her county respond to such situations. 

Peckover said CIT, “requires [officers] to do business a little differently.” Peckover said the goal of the officer should be to build rapport with the person in crisis by establishing a connection with them. Doing so will help the officer dispose of the situation peacefully and quickly. 

For example, instead of using a commanding tone of voice when speaking with a person in crisis, the training calls for officers to “go low and slow.” Officers introduce themselves to the person using their first name and then assure them they came to help them, not to arrest or hurt them. 

By engaging in active listening with the person in crisis, officers are better able to deescalate the situation by understanding the person’s problems and offering them information for mental health services. 

“The skills that are taught, it’s not that the officers don’t have them, but we package them in such a way that it’s a very accessible set of skills to help those having a mental crisis or mental illness,” Peckover said. She called the training an “additional, concise tool on their tool belt.”

When officers can successfully connect people in crisis with such services, Peckover said the hope is that it will reduce the number of repeat calls to the police by addressing the root of the problem. 

She said the training is based on an innovative police training program that originally started in Memphis, Texas. This “Memphis Model” has been adopted by departments around the country as a method of training first responders to help those with mental illness. 

This January, for instance, Dubuque first responders received similar training.

Police Chief Mark Dalsing said he is confident the crisis intervention training has improved the way Dubuque officers have dealt with subsequent, real-life cases and resulted in more peaceful resolutions. 

His department has received an average of 430 mental health reports per year since 2012. However, Dalsing clarified those reports are specifically related to people experiencing a crisis and that his department likely encounters even more people with a mental illness. 

“When we look at the fact that we handle over 55,000 calls for service per year, many with multiple people involved, we are easily working with thousands of people with a mental illness, regardless if it’s visible with a person in crisis,” he said. 

Citing the fact that about one in five people in America have a mental illness, Dalsing later added, “It doesn’t matter if it’s a rural community or metro area, we all have people in our beats that may need help. There are far too many incidents involving the police and people in crisis where there is a tragic ending.”

Dalsing said a combination of better training, planning and communication on the part of law enforcement and other emergency services could have resulted in better outcomes for mental health patients. 

Another way departments are addressing mental health concerns is by collaborating directly with mental health professionals. For example, in January, the Mason City Police Department began to work alongside a mental health coordinator who will assist officers with a growing number of mental health cases, according to The Globe Gazette. 

Police Chief Jeff Brinkley of the MCPD explained in a separate email that responding to patients in the middle of a mental health crisis can sometimes tie up his officers for long stretches of time and keep them from fulfilling other duties. 

He said the mental health coordinator would help fill the gaps in patients’ support network to prevent them from reaching a point of crisis in the first place. “By doing so, we expect that police will encounter patients in crisis at a reduced rate.” 

As a result, Brinkley said more people with mental health challenges would avoid incarceration and instead receive support services they actually need. 

Even though resources for mental health care have become scarce around Iowa, Dalsing emphasized the need for police departments to try their hardest to help those suffering from mental illness. 

“Law enforcement also needs to recognize that although we have increasing demands for all of our services, we can’t shortcut these situations. A little extra time spent with someone in crisis may save a whole lot of time later,” he said. 

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