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Grant assists law enforcement with behavioral health calls

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It’s a call that was made across the country in 2020 protests: Communities need policing that is responsive to the needs of people.

As Springfield City Council learned at its Jan. 10 meeting, Burrell Behavioral Health has received a $557,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to meet behavioral health needs through the Diverting to Care Initiative, which will fund closer collaboration between law enforcement from all of Greene County and mental health professionals. The funding is for a three-year period.

The grant application explains the project will support the implementation of a hybrid model of law enforcement/mental health care response, including the use of a mobile response unit from Burrell and the embedding of mental health care co-responders with police.

“This is part of a policing evolution in our country to recognize signs of mental health and make efforts to line up the right services when we go to a call,” City Manager Jason Gage said.

According to the grant application, shortly after taking his position in 2010, Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams established the Justice and Mental Health Collaborative Program, a monthly meeting with law enforcement, mental health professionals, homeless advocates and business leaders to identify people in need and create a plan to intervene.

The grant is expected to strengthen the collaboration between law enforcement and Burrell. Williams, who was recently tapped as board chair for Brightli, Burrell’s parent organization, declined to be interviewed for this story and deferred comment to Burrell officials.

Shalaine Periman, director of crisis services for Burrell, said the grant will provide more resources and interventions, plus quicker access to behavioral health care.

“The ultimate goal of this grant really is to reduce law enforcement’s time with behavioral health calls, but more importantly, it is to provide the best response to those needing behavioral health care,” she said

Periman said Burrell has been working on a committee with Community Partnership of the Ozarks since early 2021 to find ways to address needs of law enforcement.

The 911 call center was receiving a large number of well-being checks, she said, and these covered a wide range of needs, from requests to check on a neighbor to behavioral health crises.

The 911 dispatch center created a mental health code that allowed relevant dispatches to be broken down for study.

“We really wanted to come up with the research on what the volume of calls were, so we looked at Springfield Police Department reports that involved behavioral health or substance abuse issues so we could see as an agency what impact we could have,” she said.

The 2020 SPD annual report reveals 125,422 calls for services, with the most frequent calls including well-being checks, checks of persons, general disturbance and domestic disturbance.

The application notes Greene County initiated 558 96-hour holds at inpatient psychiatric facilities in 2020 and was on pace to exceed 600 in 2021. The 96-hour holds are reserved for those people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Burrell analysts looked at a quarter of these reports and found 60% met the criteria for commitment, but in only 40% did the report support commitment, and 25% could have been diverted to Burrell’s Rapid Access Unit, a walk-in center for those needing psychiatric services.

The committee observed many people who were taken to a hospital or to jail might have had their needs met more effectively and economically in other ways, according to Periman.

Periman said Burrell has long had a relationship with Springfield police and Greene County deputies.

“Any law enforcement agency is going to tell you that behavioral health calls consume the most time, and police are not behavioral health professionals,” Periman said.

Through the grant, law enforcement and Burrell professionals will offer an integrated model of response, Periman said. The two-pronged approach calls for a mental health professional to ride along in a police car for 40 hours a week to respond to behavioral health calls, and there will also be a mobile response unit on call to be dispatched to a scene at other times.

Periman does not envision a mobile health unit responding to a scene without police accompaniment in the early going.

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get to that by the end of three years, but I don’t see that initially,” she said.

The first year of the project will consist mainly of co-training, according to Periman, as law enforcement and mental health professionals work together to strategize and examine various types of interventions that are available to them.

According to Periman, a goal is to get people into treatment and possibly reduce future calls for law enforcement.

“We call it divertive care – we’re keeping clients out of jail, out of prisons, out of emergency rooms,” she said.

The result should be a savings of taxpayer dollars, but it could also save people’s lives.

“Jail’s not treatment,” Periman said. “Spending time in a police car’s not treatment. It’s all about getting them to the correct place and getting them to a level of care they need.”

The grant will also support training for Greene County 911 dispatchers so they will know when to send an officer or when they can divert calls to the Burrell crisis hotline. From that point, they can go to a phone intervention or face-to-face treatment without law enforcement involved, Periman said.

That has to be helpful to SPD, which had reported 55 vacancies at the end of 2021. A class of 26 recruits begins training Jan. 24, Williams told council, but they won’t be operating in the field until the latter part of the year.

“In the meantime, we have to weather the storm of keeping up with lower numbers of officers available for service right now,” he told council this month.

Through the grant, countywide crisis intervention training will teach dispatchers how to de-escalate a situation and how to talk to a caller who is in a behavioral health crisis. It will also help them to understand what calls can appropriately be transferred to a mental health crisis line.

“Not everything has to be a law officer response,” Periman said. “Having this type of resource should make everyone feel more confident in the care their loved ones are getting.”


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