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Macomb County Police Bolster Mental Health Response

May 2nd, 2023 by Guest Communications

Written by: Gina Joseph, The Macomb Daily, Mount Clemens Mich.

(TNS) – Veteran law enforcement administrators in Macomb County have noticed their officers are responding to a steadily increasing amount of calls involving someone struggling with mental illness.

Last month in Warren, a suicidal man who suffered from depression and had recently lost his job and his wife, barricaded himself in a residence on Joanne Avenue and fired more than 10 rounds during negotiations with police. The incident ended peacefully with the man coming out of the house and officers working with the family to get him to a mental health facility.

In Eastpointe last year, a young man experiencing a mental crisis walked into a city council meeting, approached one of the council members seated at the table and indicated he needed the police. Public Safety Director George Rouhib, who was in attendance, told him he could help and gently guided him into the atrium. Rouhib was able to get in contact with family members and get the young man back to the mental health facility that he had apparently exited.

It is estimated at least 20% of police calls for service in the United States involve a mental health or substance use crisis, and for many departments, that demand is growing, according to a report by the American Psychological Association (APA).

“The amount of calls involving mental illness have been increasing for a long time, and then we saw a massive increase when the COVID pandemic hit,” said Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski. “Everyone was shut down and locked down and isolated and people who were already kind of struggling were really in trouble and the safety nets became overwhelmed.”

Dwojakowski says more than 30% of the calls his department responds to involve someone experiencing mental health issues.

In a nationwide survey of more than 2,400 senior law enforcement officials conducted by Michael C. Biasotti, formerly of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Naval Postgraduate School, about 84% said mental health-related calls have increased during their careers. Sixty-three percent of these law enforcement officials said the amount of time they spend on these calls has also increased.

The rising numbers, coupled with widespread concerns about police brutality, have prompted more police departments to partner with mental health professionals in order to provide officers in the field with training that enables them to diffuse these situations.

The goal of the training is to provide a compassionate and effective crisis response to an emergency situation that is the least intrusive in a person’s life, while providing individuals with mental disorders or addictions access to medical or mental health treatment needed.

“Calls involving mentally ill people have been on the rise for 20 years ever since a lot of funding for mental health care was cut,” said Warren Police Commissioner William Dwyer. “The Warren Police Department is interacting with people with mental illness several times a day.

“Many times the interactions take place without force or incident but unfortunately, sometimes they escalate into dangerous situations.”

So far this year, Warren police have responded to 430 calls involving someone dealing with mental illness.

The increase in mental health calls has prompted local police departments to implement specific measures to effectively deal with the needs of their communities.

In Eastpointe, Rouhib created a crisis intervention team last year with six officers specially trained to deal with people experiencing a mental crisis.

“The critical response team is trained in talking to people, building trust and getting them the help they need,” said Rouhib. “If we have reason to believe someone is dealing with mental illness, one of the CIT officers will be there to calm them down and get them into an ambulance.”

Eastpointe’s four police chaplains and a fire chaplain are also trained in crisis response. Last year, Eastpointe responded to 27,725 calls and Rouhib estimates about 25% of them involved the CIT.

“When you’re dealing with someone in a mental crisis, you have to know what kind of body language, facial expressions and voice tone to use to diffuse the situation,” said Rouhib. “The CIT is trained in talking to people, building trust and getting them the help they need.

“We can’t just go in there like storm troopers; we have to be equipped to deal with people using compassion and empathy.”

In November 2021, Sterling Heights hired a community social worker. She has been so effective and helped with so many cases involving residents struggling with mental illness that Dwojakowski requested a second one be added in the 2024 fiscal year budget.

In the 17 months social worker Amy Compton, LLMSW has been in her position, she has dealt with 274 cases involving mentally ill residents who initially came into contact with the police. She has managed 24 hoarding cases; 25 cases of domestic violence; 10 cases of substance abuse; several people experiencing delusions or psychotic breaks; as well as other types of cases.

Compton is a city social worker assigned to the police department because it deals with the most cases requiring a social worker.

“At the time we hired here there were only a few municipalities in the state that had a social worker; it was a very, very new concept,” said Dwojakowski. “The rise in mental health calls were off the charts and we needed someone to follow up with family and make sure the person was getting help.”

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said he hopes his city can be a leader in helping other cities use innovative ways to address the mental health crisis. He believes having a social worker and putting programs in place like Hope Not Handcuffs and COMEBACK for people dealing with drug addiction provides better service to residents than simply arresting people in crisis.

“A lot of things that manifest as crime, the underlying problem is a mental health disorder,” said Taylor. “If people can be treated rather than being thrown in jail it is a huge benefit to the community and now, we have the resources to deal with the underlying condition.

“Amy Compton has handled something like 300 cases and she is having a direct impact on our residents.”

Sterling Heights and Warren police officers will also be ramping up training that helps them effectively deal with people in mental crisis. Mental health training is currently mandatory in both departments, but Dwojakowski and Dwyer say they plan to increase training opportunities. Dwyer said the training helps his officers learn to recognize someone who is in mental crisis as well as how to deescalate potentially volatile situations,

“Our police are armed with a set of tools to get bad guys, but not to deal with someone with mental illness so the next 12 months we are having an uptick in training,” said Dwojakowski. “There are not enough resources for people struggling with mental illness so the residents call 911 because they know we show up 24/7.”

While most people think of the barricaded gunman scenario when considering police calls involving mental illness, cases where people are delusional or hallucinating are more common and can be very difficult to handle.

“The barricaded gunman is easy because if someone is a danger to themselves, we use kid gloves and we get them to the hospital,” said Dwojakowski. “The tough cases are when they are delusional and saying weird things to their neighbors or hoarding; who fixes that problem?”

Dwyer believes strongly more funding needs to go toward giving people access to mental health care including opening more facilities where people can get treatment. Many times, he said, people can’t find a place to get treatment even if they have the money to pay for it.

“I hope the legislature would look at more funding for mental health because I think that should be a big priority,” said Dwyer. “Fifty percent of barricaded gunman or mass shooting incidents are related to mental health.

“There is absolutely no easy solution for mental illness; it has to be multifaceted as far as how you deal with it.”


©2023 The Macomb Daily, Mount Clemens, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This article appeared on Emergency Management News and is shared with consent:

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