The Chattanooga Police Department (CPD) has launched a new mental health pilot program in response to growing calls for further mental health training nationwide.
The program makes use of a $1 million grant from nonprofit crisis hotline Volunteer Behavioral Health to fund positions for mental health specialists on crisis intervention teams.
Lieutenant Tim Tomisek, the crisis intervention team manager, considers the program a form of community policing.
“This is another way to instill work and build a rapport with the community, so they can see us as a resource and not a hindrance,” he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “This is a way of community policing. We have to make sure that we continue to press forward and continue to meet the community’s needs.”
While the CPD has specially trained intervention teams to respond to mental health crisis calls, those teams lacked licensed clinicians.
“The vast majority of our officers are compassionate, but that doesn’t mean that they’re qualified to help someone in a mental health crisis,” Tomisek said, commenting on the need for co-response units composed of license clinicians and crisis intervention team members.
The grant will fund eight licensed clinician positions across seven counties in Tennessee.
Tomisek, a 20-year veteran working on a master’s degree in counseling, hopes the program will be an opportunity to build trust between law enforcement and the community.
Crisis intervention team member Jenna Parker, a social worker with a master’s degree from the University of Alabama, said her job is to communicate with those in distress and offer them a community resource list with options for food, shelter and medical attention.
Parker said that many individuals dealing with mental health problems feel comfortable talking to her, which is the first step toward building trust.
“That’s a part of that first step of building that rapport and showing these folks that there are people who care and want to help, when [they’re] ready,” she said.
Crisis intervention mental health specialists like Parker are always accompanied by a sworn police officer to make sure that the individuals they contact are not armed and dangerous. Officers make sure individuals consent to speaking with clinicians beforehand.
According to Tomisek, the CPD handles 30 to 45 mental health crisis calls a week.
Volunteer Behavioral Health works with Chattanooga institutions such as emergency rooms, fire departments and police departments to respond to thousands of mobile crisis calls a year.
Community response and training director for the organization, Kelsey Taylor, said the combined skills of law enforcement officers and mental health professionals can open new doors in dealing with mental health crises.
“It’s more than a co-response, you’re really getting involved with people’s lives and following up with them,” Taylor told reporters. “The combined expertise of the responder and law enforcement will allow for increased safety and on-scene evaluation to help individuals obtain the most appropriate level of care while avoiding unnecessary emergency department admissions and offering an alternative to incarceration for crimes related to their mental illness.”
Taylor added that they chose to award the grant to Chattanooga city police due to their “longstanding partnership” working with them.
The nonprofit has also awarded similar grants to the Cleveland Police Department, McMinnville Police Department, Cookeville Police Department, Murfreesboro Police Department, Lebanon Police Department and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.