Police departments nationwide are spending more and more time responding to calls involving people affected by mental health disorders.
This is especially true in Fort Atkinson due to the city’s large number of group homes and community-based residential facilities.
As a way to be better equipped to handle these calls, the Fort Atkinson Police Department recently completed the One Mind Campaign, a program through the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The One Mind Campaign is a pledge by police departments to implement four practices to better help people affected by mental illness over a time frame of 12 to 36 months. They can include establishing a partnership with a community mental health organization, training sworn officers and non-sworn staff in mental health awareness and providing crisis intervention training.
The curriculum focuses on individuals with mental health disorders such as depression or intellectual disability and includes education on various deescalation techniques, as well as live roleplay scenarios of officers responding to persons who need mental health assistance.
Police departments have become a major part of mental health care in the United States, as officers often are called when someone with a mental health disorder behaves erratically.
Between 5 percent and 15 percent of all police calls involve a person with a mental health disorder. Most officers — more than 90 percent — average six encounters with individuals in crisis per month, a 2016 study by the National Institutes of Health found.
In addition, people with severe mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed in police encounters than other civilians, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit working to improve access to mental health treatments.
As a way to better deal with individuals in crisis and avoid the use of force, the One Mind Campaign pledge has been taken by 503 law enforcement agencies around the world, including seven Wisconsin agencies.
Fort Atkinson Police Chief Adrian Bump said that locally, the issue isn’t the percentage of calls that deal with mental health, but, rather, how long they can take.
“It’s a lot, and it’s not necessarily the amount of calls, but the amount of time it takes to deal with these types of calls,” Bump said. “That’s where our problem is. So, you know, the number might not be impressive, but when you look at the time associated with dealing with the call, that’s where you really see how big of an impact it has on the community or on our police department.”
The effect on time and resources is multiplied when the group home population is taken into account. Fort Atkinson has the highest per capita population of group homes in Wisconsin, Bump said.
From 2010-15, Fort Atkinson emergency services responded to 2,572 calls from the group homes, according to data compiled by the City of Fort Atkinson.
With a population of slightly more than 12,000, Fort Atkinson has 367 beds in group homes and CBRFs. But that means the Fort Atkinson Police Department is covering 19.3 beds per officer.
When compared to a larger city with more beds, the Fort Atkinson Police Department is stretched far thinner.
Appleton, for example, is a city of 74,000 people and has a total of 785 group home beds. The Appleton Police Department has to cover 7.2 beds per officer.
The chief said that when a Fort Atkinson officer responds to a call of a person who might be a danger to him or herself or others — called a Chapter 51 — it causes a huge drain if the officer responds the way it’s worked in the past, Bump said.
A Chapter 51 proceeding refers to Chapter 51 of the Wisconsin statutes’ Alcohol, Drug Abuse, Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health Act. The Legislature enacted this law to ensure a full range of treatment and rehabilitation services for all mental disorders, developmental disabilities and mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Bump said that if his department is lucky, the Chapter 51 can take six hours of officer time. If not, it can take 12 to 17 hours.
A Chapter 51 can fill the entire shift of three officers and involve a deescalating the initial situation, sitting with the person for several hours at Fort Memorial Hospital and driving the person to the closest mental health hospital in Green Bay.
Bump said this overextends the rest of the officers, who have to cover for the officer who is sitting with the person in the hospital or driving to and from Green Bay. That means paying for overtime, which in turn means higher costs for taxpayers.
Now, however, the Fort Atkinson police officers can deploy the training they’ve received with the One Mind Campaign.
Bump cited one instance in which the department was having a Chapter 51 with the same man about once a month. Instead of responding by the letter of the department’s policy, one officer thought creatively about how to better help the man.
The solution, Bump said, was to have that one officer go say “hello” and play cribbage with the man for a couple hours.
“People are like, ‘well, should we even pay an officer to play cards?’” Bump said. “Well, if it saves you 18 hours of work, maybe it’s not that bad of an investment.”
And training officers in this way is quite the investment, according Kim Propp, Jefferson County’s crisis services manager. Propp leads crisis intervention training (CIT) for the county’s law enforcement agencies.
She said Jefferson County was one of the first counties in the state to start offering CIT 10 years ago. The 40-hour course she gives takes an officer away from his or her job for an entire week.
“It’s quite the expense,” Propp said. “Sending one officer is a huge investment. That speaks to the leadership of the chiefs and support of city councils.”
Propp has given crisis intervention training to 150 officers in departments across the county. Fort Atkinson has trained 16 of its 20 officers up and down the chain of command, from Bump to his captains, lieutenants and detectives.
As crisis services manager, Propp has an intimate knowledge of the county’s mental health needs and how the police fit into that picture.
In 2017, the last year for which data is available, Jefferson County logged 380 hospitalizations for mental disorders, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The cost of those 380 cases averaged almost $20,000, or $88 per Jefferson County resident.
Along with the benefit of keeping costs down, the combination of crisis intervention training and community partnerships allows police to prevent situations from ending with violence, according to Dr. Katherine Drechsler, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“It definitely helps the situation deescalate,” Drechsler said. “Improves the confidence of police officers.”
Preventing the use of force is the best outcome of initiatives such as crisis intervention training, Bump said.
“Maybe approach it differently and then force really never comes about,” Bump said. “That’s where you see the true value.”
Drechsler, who spent 30 years as a social worker helping individuals with mental health disorders, said she believes these types of steps benefit both the police and the people they’re trying to help.
“It’s truly an excellent move in the right direction for individuals affected by mental health disorders,” Drechsler said. “It’s definitely an asset for the community.”
Meanwhile, other initiatives that the Fort Atkinson Police Department has pursued in response to community needs include becoming one of the first agencies to be 100-percent trained and certified as Dementia Friendly through the Dementia-Capable Wisconsin Initiative and focusing on Autism Awareness Training for all officers in the department.
For more information about the One Mind Campaign, visit the IACP’s website: https://www.theiacp.org/projects/one-mind-campaign. A list of all agencies who have taken the pledge is available there.