Policing And Mental Health During A Pandemic

Aug 10, 2020

One of the consistent demands coming out of this summer's protests is that police departments across the country change the way they interact with mental health crises in the community.  And police have their own mental health to protect in a stressful job. In the next installment of WMRA’s Mental Health Matters series, Randi B. Hagi reports.

Welfare checks for a neighbor you haven't seen in a while. A suicide threat. Someone behaving erratically out on the street. The police are often the first responders to people in mental health crises. The Rockingham County Sheriff's department responded to more than 900 mental health-related calls in the last year. For Harrisonburg’s Police Department, it was more than 1,000.

Kelly Royston is the coordinator of the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Joint Mental Health Program.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

KELLY ROYSTON: And a lot of times it's not just mental health calls. It could be a disorderly that turns out to be a mental health case. Or a domestic. Or civil matters, suspicious activities, suspicious vehicles, suspicious person.

Kelly Royston is the coordinator of the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Joint Mental Health Program, which is housed in the local court services unit.

ROYSTON: So all of these calls, we don't know what we're getting into when we get there, but then a lot of times when we get there we realize, 'hey this really is a mental health call,' because we have a consumer that is either in crisis or there's something that has triggered them to call 911.

Royston said there's been at least a 25% increase in mental health-related calls coming in over the last few months.

ROYSTON: You don't really know the impact you're making until you have a crisis like this, to realize that we were making an impact in the community by keeping them out of the hospitals, out of the jails.

But one of their most innovative programs, a crisis response team made up of a sheriff's deputy and a clinician who respond to calls together, has been put on pause during the pandemic. They hope to resume operations next month. In normal times, when dispatchers know a call is mental health-related, they can send out the crisis response team. Or the team may hear a call go out, recognize a patient they've dealt with before, and take over the situation. Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English thinks that kind of collaboration with mental or behavioral health professionals is key to improving law enforcement's ability to respond to those calls.

Eric English is Harrisonburg's Police Chief.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

ERIC ENGLISH: We have a vest on, we have a vest and a gun, and we bring that to the scenario. And that's probably the last person that somebody who's in a crisis wants to see. I'm not saying we can't be there to support, but I think, you know, somebody that's in civilian attire, that looks like the individual so to speak, would be the best person to respond to those types of calls.

English, who served on the Richmond Police Department for 29 years, said they had a program about a decade ago –

ENGLISH: Where there was a mental health provider that was at each precinct in Richmond. And every mental health call that came out, they had a radio and they would respond with the officer to that particular call … It worked very well. Everybody was really pleased with it. The officers loved it, but it just came down to the dollars. They didn't have the financial stability to maintain it. But that would be, that would be ideal.

English said a lot of mental health calls involve substance use, too, making them even harder to deal with. He said one of the most frustrating aspects of mental health calls is when police have to transport patients across the state. If someone is deemed a threat to themselves or others, and is committed to a psychiatric ward, the police officer is responsible for getting them to a bed in a state-run hospital.

ENGLISH: Bed space could be across, in Williamsburg or Norfolk. And now we're transporting them from Harrisonburg to Norfolk … I don't see that as a function of a police department.

There's another element in this dynamic, too: interacting with people in crisis every day, whether it's mental health-related or not, takes a toll on the officers themselves.

ENGLISH: I think people fail to realize the stressors of the job.

English said that, in a profession known for its bravado, he's trying to take the stigma away from getting help. In HPD, if any officer goes through a traumatic incident on the job – such as responding to a bad accident, or being involved in a shooting – they are mandated to see a psychologist for evaluation. From there, they might be required to enroll in other mental health services.

ENGLISH: So a lot of times, you know, back in the day I can tell you that you would be involved in something traumatic, and your supervisor would tell you to suck it up. Those days are no longer.

We also reached out to Charlottesville’s Police Department, but they did not respond to requests for an interview. But the intersection of policing and mental health in Charlottesville has come up in recent city council meetings, and there are also questions over the amount of independence the Police Civilian Review Board has in its oversight. The board just started meeting last month.

Dorenda Johnson is a member of Charlottesville's new Police Civilian Review Board.
Credit Dorenda Johnson

DORENDA JOHNSON: I've always had a passion for it because I was born and raised here, and this may be a pretty town on the outside, but underneath is not as pretty for people of color. And then I have my two sons that I worry about every day.

Dorenda Johnson sits on the review board. She said that mental health will be one of their priorities to address.

JOHNSON: It's a big difference in coming and answering a call with someone that is really ill, seriously ill mentally, compared to just being a mean person … you have to know how to identify that. So they need to be able to have the training, the proper training, that they can be able to know the difference.

From the outcomes of mental health calls, to addressing issues of systemic racism, Johnson wants honesty from her city’s police department.

JOHNSON: Don't hide it, don't sugarcoat it, because we all know that you're bound to have problems. You're bound to! Every other police department across the country is, what makes you think you're not!? Just admit it, say 'yeah, we've got some issues, we've got some things that we need to work on and here they are right here. What are we going to do?'