In a dangerous mental health call, who responds? The aftermath of a tragic Sunday shooting in Madison

MADISON, Wis. — At least two mental health liaison police officers were part of an incident response Sunday afternoon on the far southeast side of Madison, police officials say, when a Madison police officer fired his gun and then a teenager turned his own gun on himself during an armed suicide threat call.

Per state law, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has now taken over the investigation and that police officer, a 3-year member of the department, is on paid administrative leave while the case is investigated. But the incident puts a spotlight on city initiatives for mental health informed responses to 911 calls–and who responds in the immediate crisis of a mental health call where weapons play a role.

“These calls are very challenging, very dynamic a lot of the time,” said Sergeant Sarah Shimko with MPD’s mental health unit. “I get calls almost daily from people who just don’t know who else to call.”

Since the early 2000s, Madison police have used mental health liaisons–patrol officers with an extra 16-24 hours of annual training–for participating in calls that include a mental health component. Currently, between 35 and 40 liaisons work citywide. More recently, the department is also one of fourteen nationwide selected as a training location for a full-time mental health response unit.

Six full-time mental health police officers team up with three mental health crisis professionals from Journey Mental Health Center to respond to behavioral calls on weekdays during daytime and evening hours, when data shows those types of behavioral calls are most frequent in Madison.

“I wish we did have more options to have more mental health officers,” Shimko said, “but I feel very grateful that we have the unit that we have. Because we’re unique, one of 14 learning sites in the whole country.”

She describes the MPD’s mental health unit as one that starts with every patrol officer on the ground. All have some basis crisis intervention and de-escalation training. From there, the next “step” of the pyramid are the liaison officers, who help serve as conduits between families, individuals in crisis, as well as third-party organizations that MPD works with. At the top of the pyramid are the six full-time officers who team up with Journey mental health professionals.

But weekday-only hours for both Madison’s full-time mental health officers, as well as a new city initiative launched September 1, the Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) team, mean neither was there when police say a teenager threatened others before taking his own life on Sunday.

While the city is expanding 911 responses services in a way that prioritizes a non-armed, mental health response to some types of crisis calls, the CARES team still wouldn’t have been the first call on Sunday even if their team worked weekends. They’re the initial response for only nonviolent 911 behavioral calls, assistant fire chief Che Stedman said.

“Any call that has a weapon involved, especially a firearm, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the CARES team to respond initially to that,” Stedman explained. “Their primary goal is to respond to nonviolent behavioral health calls.”

Earlier in November, the city voted to redirect an additional $82,000 from the police budget to the fire department for the Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) team as part of the 2022 operating budget. The funds, added to $600,000 already built into the budget for CARES, would pay for two additional mental health crisis workers covering six months of 2022.

Eventually, the goal is to expand the locations and hours of the CARES team response. But that will only come with more data, as the city learns how to best use the program. They started with about a call a day, Stedman said, but in their three months of operation are now up to 2-3 calls a day. They only serve the central Madison/downtown area, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.

For an incident like Sunday, they might be called in the aftermath of response–but not as the first call.

“If [police] come to a scene and they’re able to deescalate it and make it safe, then that’s when the CARES team should be brought in,” Stedman said. “That does happen pretty routinely, and that’s why they’re there–to support the police department in times like that.”

The team is comprised of community paramedics with additional mental health training, as well as trained professionals from Journey Mental Health Center. Eventually, the goal is a 24/7 county-wide response team for nonviolent 911 calls–but that could be years in the future. They respond to anything from welfare checks to behavioral health crises where people are behaving “erratically, but not violently,” Stedman noted.

“So far, the system is working well,” he said. “We just want to be thoughtful about not doing anything too quickly and not putting the team in harm’s way, putting them on calls that aren’t appropriate for them.”

Struggling with thoughts of self-harm? Journey’s crisis hotline can be reached at (608) 280-2600.

Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.