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Partnering with Police

Network, Winter 2005

Police and mental health workers in Chatham-Kent agree that strong partnerships, clear protocols, and specialized training are effective strategies to reduce tragic consequences when police interact with the mentally ill. A few years ago, cops and care providers in this largely rural community in southwestern Ontario came together to create the Chatham-Kent HELP Team to respond to people in psychiatric crisis. By all accounts, their collaboration has been a success.

HELP Team members are available 24/7 to intervene in situations involving the mentally ill, by assisting the investigating officer or making referrals to the proper mental health service provider. The team maintains a database of client information and has developed protocols for information sharing among the partners. Their approach is to proactively build relationships with people who repeatedly come into contact with the law, and to consider alternative measures, including informal diversion, for mentally ill offenders.

Modelled on the well-known Crisis Intervention Team in Memphis, the HELP Team strategy involves four days of additional training for selected front-line patrol officers, provided by mental health professionals. “We’ve developed a training program for police that covers everything from crisis intervention, to psychiatrists speaking to them about mental illness, to knowledge of psychotropic medications,” explains Len Caro, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Chatham-Kent Branch.

While training may not make the police experts in mental illness, adds Inspector Clare Wiersma of the Chatham-Kent Police Service, “sometimes the information can be used as a bridge to connect with the person in crisis. Anyone who deals with people struggling with mental illness, for example, knows the harsh side-effects of many of the medications. Sometimes the officer can ask, ‘What medications are you on?’ and say, ‘Oh yeah, I understand it might have this side-effect and are you having problems with that?’ The interaction may create just enough of a bridge that the mentally ill person now feels a connection with the police officer and may be more likely to listen to his advice. It can help de-escalate the incident.”

Job shadowing has also proven to be a helpful supplement to formal training. “Our crisis nurses have gone out into the community and spent a normal shift with police officers,” says Paula Reaume-Zimmer, director of mental health services at the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, another HELP Team partner. “It helps them recognize what police officers are confronted with, and the frustrations the police may have with mental health clients.”

Understanding and respecting each other’s role has helped to improve communications among the partners. “Where before, problems would fester, now we very quickly can call and say something didn’t go right on this particular case and ask what we can do to improve it,” says Wiersma. “Instead of finger-pointing back and forth, the agencies are putting their heads together and coming up with solutions.”

Kathleen Hartford of the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario, has identified the Chatham-Kent HELP Team as a best practice model. And the team’s own informal satisfaction survey, conducted among CMHA staff, consumers, family members, crisis nurses and Assertive Community Treatment team members, resulted in a very high approval rating. Almost all respondents who had contact with HELP Team officers felt they were more able than other police officers to assist the mentally ill (only 3 percent disagreed), and they suggested that all officers should get the same specialized training.

Presentations from consumers themselves are a key element of that training. “Officers who have attended the training have indicated that it’s probably the most impactful part,” says Wiersma, “to hear from somebody who was a highly functioning member of society, with a good career, et cetera, and was then struck by a mental illness. The person has learned to cope with their illness, but in many cases they’ve lost their career, have to deal with stigma, and so on. It certainly helps the officers to get a real understanding of the issues involved with mental illness, and the challenges that people face. It raises their level of empathy.”

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