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Mental Health Task Force to present recommendations to Overland Park leaders

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Posted at 5:59 AM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-17 07:20:49-04

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Monday evening, members of Overland Park, Kansas’ Mental Health Task Force will present nine recommendations to city leaders.

The task force has spent one year crafting the recommendations, some of which its chair said might look familiar.

“We found there were things that were happening, they needed to come back, they needed to come to the top of the pile,” Chris Newlin, a city council member and chair of the Mental Health Task Force explained.

The recommendations are as follows:

  • Work with regional partners to create a crisis center. Currently, there is not a facility for police to involuntarily commit someone in crisis who they believe to be a danger to themselves or others except for a hospital emergency room. Newlin expects a partnership with Johnson County and the state of Kansas will be necessary in order to make this recommendation reality.
  • Continue to fund programs to prevent and treat substance abuse disorders and other addictions.
  • Work with the municipal and district courts to improve mental health diversion programs allowing more eligible defendants access to mental health services from the Johnson County Mental Health Center.
  • Dedicate a page of the city’s website to mental health resources and awareness in an effort to offer information and break the stigma around mental health.
  • Hire victim advocates, once a grant currently funding the position expires. Victim advocates connect victims of violent crimes with resources and guidance.
  • Offer Trauma-Informed Care training to city staff who interact with the public. Trauma-Informed Care recognizes every person has experienced trauma.
  • Add more full-time crisis intervention team (CIT) officers and co-responders to the police department. CIT officers handle mental health-related emergencies. In the past three years, the department has received nearly 10,000 calls for service specifically for mental health emergencies but has only been able to respond with a CIT officer to roughly 20 percent of the calls.
    • Co-responders are mental health clinicians, not law enforcement officers, from the county who work with police departments to help prevent arrests and trips to the emergency room when not necessary. “The co-responders are able to communicate with Johnson County Mental Health [Center] if these people have a treatment team and then they’re able to work with them to best problem solve,” explained Sergeant Tom Keary, who supervises the Overland Park Police Department’s Behavioral Health Unit.
    • Currently, the police department has two full-time CIT officers and three co-responders from Johnson County. The task force recommends having 11 full-time CIT officers who do not wear a police uniform and having seven co-responders to allow for 24/7 coverage.
    • Last summer, police Chief Frank Donchez agreed to train all officers in crisis intervention. Newlin said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down that process.
  • Offer more mental health resources to the city’s first responders in the form of peer support, assessments and offer professional clinicians to city staff. “To be able to do our best for our citizens, we’ve got to be at our best ourselves,” Keary said. “If we’re not taking care of ourselves, and that includes our mental health, then we’re not going to be able to do that.”
  • Create a new mental health committee to keep the city accountable for these recommendations.

The spotlight hit mental health treatment in Overland Park in January 2018 when a police officer killed a 17-year-old who was in crisis. The shooting happened in Newlin’s ward.

“Jan. 20, 2018, has been a day that’s been on my mind every day since it happened. I wanted to make sure out of tragedy we had positive things that are happening so that I can try to avoid that ever happening again,” Newlin said.

After the shooting, advocates for improved mental health treatment in the community created a group called JOCO UNITED. A member of JOCO UNITED held a voting position on the city’s Mental Health Task Force. Anne Timmons said she sees these recommendations as a great beginning, but admits there is more work to do.

“One of the big things we wanted to do was show we are able to work as a community and make sure everyone has input into this,” Newlin pointed out.

Monday, the task force will present the recommendations during a Committee of the Whole meeting. The city manager will then assign the recommendations to city staff who will formulate how to implement and pay for them. Each recommendation will come back to the full city council for approval as staff develops plans.

“What we have today is nine really great recommendations that will boost the city up and bring mental health forward,” Newlin said.

The Committee of the Whole meets Monday, May 17 at 6:15 p.m. at City Hall.