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Rural police agencies primary responders to mental health calls

Large metropolitan areas have been establishing programs to create civilian-based response teams that would work with the 9-1-1 system to respond to calls related to mental illness and substance use. 

While the program would limit the need to for police intervention, local agencies said there just aren’t the programs locally available at this time. 

Cass County Sheriff Devron Ohrn said his agency acts as the primary responder for most calls related to a mental health episode. 

“These calls are still greatly falling on us,” Ohrn said. “It has been a goal for awhile not in Cass. We have to call a team from Memorial. We use to have something locally, but we don’t anymore.”

Ohrn said the options for programs like the Chicago’s Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement (CARE) — a group that responds to 9-1-1 calls with the focus of de-escalation, mental health assessment and referrals to community services, as well as other options — are limited in the area because there aren’t enough people or organizations to support it. 

The Chicago team currently responds to calls Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in 11 pilot areas and will also conduct follow-up calls multiple times following a call. 

Ohrn said a program like that would be helpful and beneficial to the community, however it isn’t something currently available. 

Ohrn said police have received basic training in dealing with issues of mental health and substance abuse, specifically with identifying them.

“We trying to deal with mental illness as best as we can, but we can’t provide the help they need,” Ohrn said. “We can’t always wait for a team either. If a person is willing and stable at the time, we try to call, but most of the time we end up taking them to the hospital for a mental health evaluation.”

Waverly Police Chief Chris Johnson said there are programs available in the west-central region that respond to these types of calls, however, they are not the first responders. 

“They are not the initial responders, and I belive the police should still respond,” Johnson said. 

While not trained to do a full evaluation of someone experiencing a mental  health issue, Johnson said officers are trained to respond to difficult and sometimes volatile situations.

Johnson said most people they encounter during these types of calls are often good people having a bad day. However, he said even a good person can become violent in stressful times.

“These would be unarmed and unequipped people going into potentially dangerous situations,” Johnson said. “You don’t know what a person’s response will be.”

Ohrn said officers are trained for initial responses. 

Each officer receives Critical Response Training, which include mental illness and substance abuse, but Ohrn said the greatest training an officer gets is the actual interaction from day to day. 

“When you work in a rural area, we get calls out in the middle of nowhere,” Ohrn said. “You learn to talk to people. That translates well into incidents of mental illness. They want to be talked to like a decent person. When you know how to talk to people, to deescalate, that puts a situation in a better place.” 

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