Police officers usually don’t show up to ask how your day is going. When they arrive, they pretty much know how it’s going.
“People are used to an officer knocking on the door typically only when there’s a crisis,” said Rochester Police Department Sgt. Steve Boily. “It’s a bad day for that individual, it’s a bad day for that family, and our men and women that show up in uniform can try and fix it.”
Until recently, if police responded because of a mental health concern there was little they could do except get the person, sometimes unwillingly, to a hospital.
Now they can check up on the person and bring a counselor who can connect the individual with services.
For two years, the Monroe County Office of Mental Health Forensic Intervention Team has been working with Rochester Police Department, town departments and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to help someone in a mental health crisis.
“I don’t think it can be overstated how important it is to get mental health professionals to people in the field,” said Patrick Phelan, chief of the Greece Police Department and president of the New York State Association Chiefs of Police.
Pairing police with mental health experts also may build relationships and change how people in crisis view police officers.
“We’d much rather work with people to get them services so they can go about their lives without being forced to go to the hospital,” Boily said. “That’s the epitome of becoming a police officer, to help somebody … versus, I don’t want to say punish them, but that’s how people probably feel when we have to take them against their will to the hospital.”
CHIEFS WANTED TO DO MORE
Kim Butler, chief of clinical and forensic services for the county Office of Mental Health, started working on the FIT program in July 2016 after police chiefs voiced frustration over how little they could do for people in crisis.
While the idea for FIT started around the time that police agencies were realizing the scope of the opioid problem, the impetus was finding a way to connect people to help before they were in crisis. There been informal partnerships with some police agencies, but FIT formalized the protocol.
Butler launched FIT September 2017 with a $400,000 grant from the state Office of Mental Health. The money can be renewed. Butler said the state did not ask for data on cost savings through reduced use of emergency departments or police services on repeat calls. She said she wants to collect that information when changes to the county 911 system allow for better tracking of calls for specific services.
FIT currently has five licensed mental health professionals who cover from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays. Butler would like to expand to seven counselors who can provide 24/7 in-person coverage.
Butler recently marked the two-year anniversary of the program by announcing that counselors have answered nearly 11,000 requests from law enforcement agencies.
“We don’t say no to anybody,” she said.
HOW FIT WORKS
Officers can request a FIT specialist en route to a call or from the scene, or they can make a referral after the fact.
Once there’s contact with an individual, FIT counselors can follow up on their own or continue to see the person with an officer present.
“If I were to sum up the goal of the FIT team, it’s really to get folks connected to outpatient services,” Butler said. “A lot of times people don’t have anyone else to call. that’s’ why they call 911. We’re trying to build their system up so that they have more resources involved.”
Talking with a FIT counselor is free. If a person wants a referral to services, FIT will help connect them to insurance.
Butler said FIT may start by meeting a person’s need for food, clothing or shelter before bringing up the topic of mental health care. “If you think about it, everybody’s got to eat and everybody’s got to have some place to live. So a lot of time we start with those really primal needs.”
FIT never closes a case. “We can come back into play if the bottom falls out of their world in the future,” she said.
Of the nearly 11,000 calls, about one-third have come from RPD, the most of any department, followed by the sheriff’s office. Gates Police Department ranked third, largely because its victim advocate, Ellen Guerdat, tracks calls related to mental health and is readily able to spot trends.
“We ask FIT if they can follow up to see what kind of service is put in place for the person,” she said. “Having somebody follow up with them lets the person and their family know that there are people that actually care about them.”
She said the officers get fewer repeat calls, and when they do come in, she refers it to the FIT counselor who has a relationship with the individual.
Butler tells the story of a resident in the Lake Avenue area of the city who was always callling 911 and often had to be taken to a hospital.
“She may have needed it, but from her perspective it was very scary,” Butler said. “She never interacted with the cops in any other way.”
Butler and an officer regularly stop by to see her, and Lake Section officers will drop in on their own. On her birthday, 11 Lake Section officers brought her a cake.
“I was away and heard the story,” Butler said. “It brought tears to my eyes. … I do think it can be quite impactful for officers and individuals to see each other not in crisis.”