KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thanks to a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Olathe Police Department is enhancing a unit that pairs clinicians from the Johnson County Mental Health Center with Olathe police officers.
"This isn't just a knee-jerk reaction type thing,” Olathe police spokesman Sgt. Joel Yeldell said. "We've been working on this for a while."
The program, which has been in the works for three years, is a partnership between the department and the Johnson County Mental Health Center Co-Responder program.
The goal is to respond with specially trained personnel to as many mental health calls as possible, providing a specialized response for those who are in crisis.
"As a police department, we've seen a huge increase in the amount of mental health calls that community calls us to respond to,“ Olathe Police Sgt. Robert McKeirnan said.
When the co-responder program began in Olathe nine years ago, McKeirnan estimates the police department responded to roughly 400 mental health calls per year.
That number had more than quadrupled to almost 1,800 by 2020, he said.
“The call load continues to increase and something that we want to do is serve our citizens well, no matter what it is we're responding to, and this has become a large percentage of our calls for service,” McKeirnan said.
The new Advanced Crisis-Intervention Team, or ACT, will be utilized whenever there is a mental health component to a 911 call. ACT personnel who hear the information relayed through dispatch will tale that call.
The difference under the new program is that the co-responder will ride with the officer to the scene, so a trained mental health expert is there from the start.
"They can hear everything that's going on … from the family, from the person that's in crisis," McKeirnan said. "Instead of playing a game of telephone, of me trying to relay as best I can the mental health concern, they get to hear them firsthand."
ACT personnel also will help determine the disposition in some instances for individuals in distress.
"I personally conduct mental health assessments, determine suicide risk and figure out best placement options for people that do need to go someplace or if they can remain at home and they're safe to do that,” Jordyn Chaffin, a co-responder with Johnson County Mental Health Center and the Olathe Police Department, said.
First responders said early intervention with potential mental health crises is key and can improve outcomes for individuals.
"This service is essential," Chaffin said. "We have to make sure that people are capable of moving forward to the next day and, if they feel like they aren't, we have to do something to help them."
But the ACT program doesn't stop with that initial call for service.
Several weeks after the initial 911 call, Olathe police officers will return with the co-responders for in-person followups.
McKiernan said he's seen the difference those visits, including one he recently made for a woman experiencing an emergency, can make.
“(I was) talking with a gal, she was on the brink of losing her housing, she was really struggling, she didn’t have a lot of family support, she didn’t have a job," he recalled.
McKiernan and the co-responder helped her receive treatment at a local hospital. Weeks later after he and a co-responder went back to check on her, McKeirnan said it was like night and day.
“I didn’t recognize her," he said. "She was just, it seemed like a completely different person. She had her housing still, she had a job now and she was reconnecting with family. It was one of those pieces of help, like this can be life-changing. This can really make a difference in people's lives, which is why I love this work so much.”
Making a positive impact and helping people in the community is the ACT program's goal.
"That's really what it boils down to, is doing the next right thing, and as a department this was a move in that direction for us,” Yeldell said. “We’re glad we have that partnership with Johnson County Mental Health. We're looking toward the next steps."
The Olathe Police Department ACT unit will consist of a sergeant and three police officers who are trained in crisis intervention and mental health first aid.
The team also includes two Johnson County Mental Health Center co-responders who are licensed clinicians.
Olathe police received a COPS grant through the U.S. Department of Justice for the program. The department was the only Kansas law enforcement agency to receive the grant out of 1,100 applicants nationwide.