Oklahoma Mental Health Agencies Partnering with Law Enforcement to Better Serve Those in Crisis

Posted By: Hayley Twyman Brack Legislation, Resources,

a police car with lights lit in front of a busy street.

Pictured above: a police car with lights lit in front of a busy street.

For years, suicide has been a leading cause of death among Oklahoma adults and adolescents. Over the course of the pandemic, the state has unfortunately experienced a rise in suicide, along with an overall increase in behavioral health problems in youths. Often, the first line of defense in intervening in cases of mental health crises are not mental healthcare providers; it’s law enforcement.

According to a report in Oklahoma Watch, mental health related calls to Oklahoma law enforcement are up 95% since 2013. The same report found that fewer than 14% of Oklahoma City police officers have the crisis intervention training that aids in making a decision on whether a detained individual needs a mental health intervention over incarceration. In research presented by the Treatment Advocacy Center, it was found that nationwide individuals with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely than others to have deadly force used against them in an altercation with police.

Oklahoma outranks every other state when it comes to police altercation mortality rates and it is reported that 60% of incarcerated individuals in the state have a history of severe mental illness. OKCPD has the second highest officer involved shooting rate of all law enforcement agencies in the nation. While most of the police involved shootings by OKCPD have been found to be justified, according to The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch there have still been multiple cases of law enforcement using deadly force against unarmed civilians with severe mental illness. The increased need for mental healthcare in Oklahoma over the last two years has increased the need for law enforcement to be trained in navigating mental health crises.

Over the past few years, state and private agencies have collaborated to bridge the gap between law enforcement intervention and mental health care through funding, training, and technology. Recently, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services received a $121,000 grant to fund Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for Oklahoma law enforcement officers. CIT aims to train law enforcement to recognize and respond to mental health emergencies with de-escalation strategies and coordination with mental health resources. Though the grant will be far from enough to train all Oklahoma officers, more CIT trained officers may lead to fewer arrests of individuals struggling with mental illness, an increase in connection to services, and a reduction in officer injuries.

Oklahoma mental health agencies have also partnered with law enforcement to improve access to assessment services during mental health crisis calls. In 2016, Grand Lake Mental Health Center initiated a program that has issued approximately 6,000 iPads to law enforcement officers to improve access to mental health providers. Instead of law enforcement officers being tasked with assessing for a mental health crisis and transporting immediately to an emergency room, officers use the iPad to connect detainees with licensed mental health providers to assess for the need and level of care. The service also connects first responders to a helpline so that they may debrief with a clinician after a difficult call.

Jim Warring, the Law Enforcement Director with Grand Lake Mental Health Center, was interviewed about the agency’s program. According to Mr. Warring, GLMHC has provided the iPads to every officer in 12 Northeast Oklahoma counties, along with much needed therapeutic services to law enforcement. Mr. Warring referenced the elevated risk of suicide among law enforcement officers and reported that each officer involved with the GLMHC program is granted 10 pro-bono counseling sessions. Mr. Warring also reported that along with connecting individuals in crisis to mental health services, officers may also use the iPads to connect citizens with case management and wrap-around services, even if they are not in crisis.

Similarly, Edmond Police Department has also established a partnership with NorthCare to better connect citizens with crisis services and case management. According to an interview with NorthCare Care Specialist Desiree Bell, the collaboration with Edmond PD aims to provide support to police officers responding to mental health related calls and to assist in diverting those in crisis to an adequate resources. According to Ms. Bell, her role within the department is to accompany police officers on suspected mental health crisis calls, assist in coordinating assessments for higher levels of care, and provide case management referrals for consumers. Ms. Bell stated that the collaboration is also aiming to make contact and provide resources for the city’s homeless population. She reports that in September she received 34 referrals from Edmond Police contacts whom she was able to connect with mental health and case management services.

Prioritizing mental health in times of mental health crisis is integral for Oklahomans’ wellbeing. Since the implementation, GLMHC’s iPad program has decreased inpatient treatment in the areas in which it is used and research has found in multiple studies that CIT training may lead to a decrease in use of force and an increase in diverting detained individuals to mental health care. In order to decrease the overall need for police involvement, on July 1st, 2021 Oklahoma will launch 988, an emergency services line specific for mental health crises. Many of the law enforcement coordination programs appear to be helpful in increasing access to mental health services and decreasing the detention or arrest of those in the midst of a mental health crisis.

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