JSO pilot program aims to address mental illness

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and mental health experts are joining forces to help people with mental health issues.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and mental health experts are joining forces to help people with mental health issues.

As part of a pilot program, the Sheriff’s Office is working with a mental health care provider to send an officer and and a mental health expert known as a co-responder out to meet with homeless people and others in the community who are in need in hopes of getting them help.

“The team is mostly proactive, seeking out individuals in need in our community and attempting to connect them with services,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “There are no requirements for them to respond to a call, as the provider is not providing counseling or any other services to the citizen at the scene.”

Protests that erupted in Florida and across the country earlier this year called for mental health experts to join police on certain calls. Here in Jacksonville, the program does not deal with emergency or potentially dangerous situations that could escalate into violence.

JSO said co-responders are not handling high-risk calls for service such as someone who has barricaded themselves inside a home and are threatening to harm themselves or anyone else. The agency said it has officers who are trained in crisis negotiation who will handle disturbances like that.

Instead, the co-responder team reached out to individuals who might be in need and try to get them whatever help is necessary. In some cases, that might involve diversion. So if someone is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, the answer might be connecting them with the appropriate treatment or rehabilitation options.

The Sheriff’s Office receives funding for its program from LSF Health Systems, whose chief executive says it’s a program worth funding. “When a clinician is present, they are able to access from a psychological point of view the situation and are often times able to deescalate a situation,” Dr. Christine Cauffield, LSF’s CEO, said.

In police shootings, those who know the person killed usually ask whether more could have been done to protect their loved ones. In the case of 18-year-old Devon Gregory, who was killed a couple weeks ago, the medical examiner determined he shot himself. But it’s unclear if that’s the shot that killed him, or if it was a bullet from one of four officers who shot him.

Dr. Cauffield said in a situation like that, it might be beneficial to have co-responders present.

“From the video, it was obvious that the officers were concerned that the individual may have had a weapon. And in that moment the police officer may have asked the therapist, the co-responder team member, to let him take over,” Cauffield said. “You hear the young man saying, ‘Shoot me, shoot me.’ Again, I can’t speak to whether that was the case in the situation or not, but that is unfortunately something that does occur with individuals that struggle with taking their own lives, and if they’re in a situation where there is a police officer involved, they often don’t obey and ask the officer to shoot them.”

But some contend the situation was unpredictable and too dangerous for a co-responder to assist.

Capt. Mike Schentrup with the Gainesville Police Department, which has had a co-responder program for two years now, said there are risks involved for officers and co-responders.

“That mental health professional, they train on, ‘When do I just stay in the car?’” Schentrup said.”We know and we’re taught deescalation, and we’re taught that time is on our side. If we can slow things down...we have the ability to come away from the incident with everybody doing better and ending it very safely.”

The captain said officers don’t want to be responsible for escalating the situation. He said 40 percent of the Gainesville Police Department’s ranks are Crisis Intervention Trained (CIT) officers.

“The rare ones are the ones when the violence is already occurring, or you get there and someone is wielding a knife,” Schentrup said. “Those are the ones that we have to learn to take it slow if we can and do we best we can and understand the mental health aspect of it. If we can get CIT-trained folks there to talk with the person and maybe calm them down.”

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