Laramie’s police chief this week pitched adding a new facet to the department’s welfare checks that would seek to connect those suffering from mental health crises with community-based help.
While serving on a panel discussion with the chief of police in Lincoln, Nebraska, Laramie Police Department Chief Stalder said he learned about Lincoln’s REAL (standing for Respond, Empower, Advocate and Listen) program. The abstract from an article on the REAL program published in Police Quarterly described it as a “community-based, peer support program in which police and mental health workers collaboratively address citizens’ mental health needs following encounters with law enforcement.”
When a police officer in Lincoln goes on the equivalent of a welfare check in Laramie, officers have the ability to refer that contact to a mental health board. That board then assigns a peer support person to pursue a connection with those contacted by police with the hope of driving them toward resources.
“That peer support person through the Lincoln mental health board is somebody who has recovered or is in a stable position of mental illness who then makes contact within 24 to 48 with the person who Lincoln P.D. contacted out in the field,” Stalder said during a Monday meeting of the Albany County Mental Health Board.
The program in Lincoln, just more than a decade old, has yielded positive results according to a peer-reviewed study, Stalder said.
The study described in Police Quarterly found individuals who received referrals to a peer support person generated fewer mental health calls for service and were less likely to be taken into emergency protective custody 24 and 36 months after a crisis. No difference in arrest rates were found. While the free, voluntary, non-clinical program appears effective, the study’s abstract noted it requires a year or more before participants and communities see benefits.
“It’s at least more than we’re doing now,” Stalder said in reference to the results timeline in Lincoln’s program.
Stalder noted that since 2008 LPD officers have been trained as Critical Incident Team, or CIT, responders that teaches officers to deal with mental health crises and de-escalation. About 20% of the LPD is CIT trained. Stalder said, however, he has since strived to create a stronger connection between those in crisis contacted by police and support in the mental health community.
“We’ve never in all these years been able to bring the police response together with a mental health professional response,” Stalder said.
Lincoln has a far more robust mental health treatment program across its entire community than Laramie, Stalder said, so it’s been a considerable challenge finding ways to connect people in crisis contacted by police to mental health services. So while it would require further investigation to determine how a similar program could be implemented in Laramie, Stalder said he sees it as a step in the right direction.
“I think something like this at least starts to bridge the gap between CIT in the police world versus what we’ve always known needs to be a more comprehensive CIT program involving mental health professionals and police in tandem,” he told the board.
For several weeks, protests against racism and police violence have caught the attention of local government officials as demonstrators call for reforms to law enforcement. Many have expressed a desire to see a larger role of community-based professionals in dealing with the mentally ill that are now contacted by law enforcement often via welfare checks. During its June 30 meeting, the council passed a resolution directing city staff to identify options for creating a civilian oversight board and other measures aimed at increasing community involvement in policing.
Stalder told the Boomerang in an email Tuesday that he doesn’t see his pitch of implementing something comparable to the REAL program in Laramie as a response to the demands of activists. Instead, Stalder said it’s a continuation of something he’s been trying to accomplish for a long time.
“I have tried to accomplish this for the past 12 years, so this isn’t something I even considered as being related to the resolution or the ‘activists’ as you refer to them,” Stalder wrote. “I don’t know if they would embrace this or not.”
While all agreed more information was needed, Stalder received the support of the board — as long as the program was evidence-based — in considering something comparable to the REAL program locally. More information is expected to be presented during the board’s September meeting.