The Skagit County Sheriff’s Office has brought in two mental health clinicians to work with deputies to defuse situations and offer care to those in crisis.
Chief of Field Operations Chris Baldwin said many of the calls his deputies respond to have some element of mental illness, disability or substance abuse, but the deputies do not have the training to help.
“Jail or the hospital is not the right right alternative for them,” he said.
Often, he said these calls come from the family of a loved one in crisis or behaving dangerously, and who don’t know what else to do other than call 911.
A person experienced in mental health care can meet a deputy on the scene and use their training to try and calm the subject and avoid a situation where the deputy may have to use force.
Detective Anne Weed, who developed the positions in conversations with Compass Health Program Manager Marla Johns, said approaching those in crisis on a personal level will help them get the treatment they need.
“They don’t need to go to jail, they need help,” Weed said.
Weed said she started working on the new positions with Johns in January, after seeing that existing practices weren’t adequately serving this community.
In the past, deputies have given those in crisis a phone number to call to get connected with services, but Johns said they called less than a third of the time.
Johns, who oversees the county’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, said having a mental health clinician on scene will improve the chances that someone in crisis gets the help they need.
“If nothing else, they’ll know someone in the community cares about them,” she said.
The program is funded by the North Sound Behavioral Health Administrative Services Organization, Johns said. It is funded for six months, with the opportunity to have it extended.
These clinicians will not wear law enforcement uniforms, in order to emphasize their separation from law enforcement, she said. Often, the presence of someone with a badge and a gun can create heighten anxiety in those in crisis.
Oftentimes, Weed said she sees those in crisis want mental health care, but they don’t know how to access providers, agencies and services.
“When you’re in crisis, it’s really hard to navigate that maze,” she said.
When either of the clinicians arrives on scene, they will sit with the subject and determine if they are a risk to themselves or others and whether there is an underlying mental health issue, then help connect them with the services they need.
If the subject isn’t ready to accept care, she said the clinicians will give them a number to call, and check in with them later.
Weed said the new employees will strive to be proactive, checking in with those in the community with behavioral health issues who frequently call 911.
Baldwin said collaboration between the deputies and the clinicians will help to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. For instance, he said those on scene can share knowledge on someone law enforcement deals with frequently and learn what to say and do to calm them down.
Johns said she hopes the program can expand quickly after implementation, and envisions a regional approach that includes the city police departments.