A new era of policing: What local police departments are doing to improve response to mental health crisis calls

MADISON, Wis. — Newly appointed Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes said he has a top goal in mind as the new leader of 479 commissioned officers: building trust with the community and remaining transparent.

In 2020, after social and racial justice movements sparked across the country, it posed a major question regarding police’s role in the community: Should police respond to mental health related calls?

Barnes said, “Is someone better equipped to handle mental health calls than the police? The answer is yes. The answer is everyone. Everyone together is the best person to handle mental health calls. Not just the police by themselves. Not just mental health workers by themselves. Not just clinicians or psychologists by themselves. But everyone together.”

As it stands, MPD has six officers who respond to mental health calls full time. Forty-two others are trained liaisons who can assist on mental health related calls when needed. Three Journey Mental Health crisis workers are also embedded within the police department to accompany them to these calls. Sarah Henrickson is one of them.

“If we were to try to just respond to every mental health related call for service with our six mental health officers and three crisis workers, there’s just no way,” Henrickson said. “We would just be chasing our tails all the time.”

Henrickson said the number of calls that come in where someone is going through some sort of mental health crisis is too great for police to be out of the response.

“There are things that are codified in our law that require law enforcement involvement. For example, a person being detained for involuntary psychiatric treatment by Wisconsin State law is required to be detained by a law enforcement officer,” Henrickson said.

Sarah Shimko, who helps lead MPD’S Mental Health Unit said many of the calls involve a public safety component where it would be too risky for police to not be involved in some manner.

“That law enforcement involvement is, to some degree, unavoidable as the system exists right now,” Shimko said. “Some of that has to do with inadequate service systems in our community.”

Shimko said if someone asked her about this same topic in 5-10 years from now, her response might be different depending on what new systems come into play that could help manage the mental health crisis we are currently in.

Attorney General Josh Kaul said police are often responding to these calls due to a lack of mental health resources that could prevent the calls from happening in the first place.

“What happens when you cut some of those programs is that law enforcement is left to be the only responder to those situations when a call comes in and there’s somebody in crisis,” Kaul said.

Shimko said until the state can implement more adequate preventative measures to help avoid so many people experiencing mental health crises, her department does what it can to respond, given the resources they have.

“As it stands right now, we absolutely need more mental health officers because right now, the burden is placed very often on police for these responses,” Shimko said.

As long as officers are involved in the response, Barnes says he wants to make sure his officers are trained for it.

Starting this year, MPD officers will be required to go through what’s called Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics, or ICAT training.

It’s a program that the Sun Prairie Police Department has been using for several years now. Patrol Lieutenant Ryan Cox said it’s made a difference in how they respond to calls involving mental health crises.

“We try to teach our people to respond and use those threat assessment factors ahead of time so that they’re not putting themselves in a bad position that results in a higher level of force,” Cox said.

UWPD has also been using the program for the past three years and was the first police department in Dane County to implement the program.

Director of Communications Marc Lovicott said the ICAT program “has really helped our officers slow down, open up a line of communication, particularly when responding to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. It’s all about listening, talking, and de-escalating. It’s proven to be a vital tool that our officers have been able to use to limit use-of-force and quickly defuse a crisis situation.”

Cox said out of SPPD’s 56 sworn officers, 30 will be trained in crisis intervention by July. He stated that the only downside is that responding to those calls now takes more time.

“Those types of situations are absolute wins,” Cox said. “Not just in the short term but in the long term because it teaches our officers look this really can work. And yea, it takes a while but that’s good. It’s good that it takes a while because that means nobody had to get hurt.”

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is looking at standardizing this training, making it mandatory for all Wisconsin law enforcement.

“We are constantly looking at standardizing the training in the state for the crisis intervention teams. That is definitely something we support and try to provide funding for when we can,” said DOJ’s Stephanie Pederson.

Until a more standardized program is implemented for all law enforcement in Wisconsin, Troy Egger, who helps train the Janesville Police Department, focuses on incorporating mental health crisis response training into every topic covered in the police academy.

“So what I like to do is teach emotional intelligence when we are talking about mental health, teach emotional intelligence when we are talking about firearms training,” Egger said. “If you can interweave these soft skills into all these different topics, I think that’s what we need to do on an academy level.”

In order to become a police officer in Wisconsin, the academy requires 720 hours of training. Of those hours, Madison police spent 90 hours in firearms training, 75 hours in defense and arrest tactics and 20 in mental health crisis response.

“I think 20 hours is certainly not enough for any police department,” Barnes said.

While Wisconsin’s required hours of training is actually higher than many states according to the DOJ, Barnes knows that the 20 hours isn’t working for everyone.

But MPD does have required training for its officers beyond the academy level .

“De-escalation, professional communication, scenario instruction because all of these things are encompassing crisis response. We are upwards of 100 hours,” Shimko said.

Barnes added that since he took over as MPD’s Chief, he now requires officers to do use of force reviews every Monday to see what the officer involved could have done better.

“This is the way we are going to do business now to let everyone know we are going to be held accountable for that,” Barnes said.

Until funding is available to provide more mental health resources state wide to prevent these types of situations from happening in the first place, police say they’re working on doing better for the people they serve.

“The better students we are going to produce and the less likely we are going to have these issues that we see all the time,” Egger said.

Cox said if more police departments get on board with doing what they can where they can, it will result in better outcomes for everyone.

“There has to be willingness from a professional side of the police department as well as the people they serve,’ Cox said. “They’re consumers, they’re customers. That’s who we serve. There has to be both sides willing to hear that and learn from it”

The Sun Prairie Police Department wants to start inviting the community to sit in on parts of their officer training as soon as next year to help build trust and transparency. Cox said they are going to start recording and collecting data on how well the training is working.

“How do we track how often we use these mitigating factors or how often we use de-escalation that can show us we didn’t have to tase someone or we didn’t have to fire a less lethal bean bag round against these armed civilians that are resisting? That’s actually something for 2021 we want to try to start recording is how often our de-escalation actually worked.”

Barnes said he welcomes community input on how MPD is doing, what they could be doing better, and encourages those with experience in training police officers in mental health crisis response to reach out to him directly.