Police officers are increasingly relying on the Zoom video-calling app to deal with mental health crises.
Zoom, the popular video chat app that exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, is now serving as a tool to get mental health experts in the room with someone suffering from a mental health crisis.
Cook County Sheriff’s Police Sgt. Bonnie Busching experienced the impact of the technology firsthand
she used a tablet to call a mental health expert during a domestic disturbance call.
When she handed the tablet to a suicidal man with a knife and told him to talk with the woman on the screen, he immediately calmed down.
“When I saw how this tool pacified him, I was like, holy smokes, this is incredible,” she said.
The Cook County Sheriff’s office is one of the first in the country to employ Zoom during mental health calls. According to York Dispatch, the sheriff’s office decided to employ the innovative approach as part of their “Treatment Response Team” strategy.
The team was initially deployed to help the department deal with skyrocketing drug overdose calls, but became especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic after social isolation led to a greater number of mental health disturbances.
Sheriff Tom Dart made headlines for his department’s innovative strategy to tackle mental health calls.
“We were being asked more and more to be the first responders for mental health cases and they were being asked to do things they don’t have training for or minimal training for,” he said. The Cook County office has seen 911 calls related to mental health issues increase by 60% this year, according to the York Dispatch.
The sheriff said that while other programs around the country involve mental health clinicians riding around with police officers in ambulances or patrol cars, it’s not necessarily practical for larger areas with heavy traffic like his county.
Elli Petaque-Montgomery, the team director, said the tablets provided a perfect way to get mental health clinicians on the scene.
“We wanted a tool for the officers to get that mental health expert on the scene immediately,” he said.
The department currently has 70 tablets — 35 purchased with grant money and 35 more after realizing how useful and in demand they were.
Dart added that the digital solution is more cost-effective. The price of the clinicians and the tablets — around a couple hundred dollars each — is much cheaper than the price of sending mental health professionals out on calls.
“We’re not asking anyone to work an 8-hour shift, but we’re just asking them to be available,” Dart explained.
Petaque-Montgomery and the sheriff agreed that the use of video chat technology also makes officers’ jobs much safer and easier.
“They’ve seen they could go into (situations) that historically meant hours and hours and tons of paperwork and potentially the use of force and hand the tablet over to the clinician and let the clinician do their job so they could do theirs,” he said.
“We can even slide a tablet under a door so they don’t even have to see a cop,” Dart added.