Call of Duty: Mental health workers have a key role during police interactions | Ana White

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The city of Harrisburg and surrounding cities have been hit with hardships involving its citizens and police that have left many wanting to address law enforcement’s role in addressing mental health issues from the citizens they serve.

Ana White (Capital-Star file)

Over time, with other police related issues, the topic of mental health had been applied to just that of the police officer, but further conversation expanded to include a police officer’s perceived responsibility in addressing mental health issues and how they engage those they serve.

On one end, this discussion, held from a mental health perspective, draw attention to a failing mental health system, and on the other end also speaks to the idea that police and law enforcement have duties to provide the level of appropriate servitude that allows for a better relationship in our communities.

From a mental health perspective, what are we examining when it comes to law enforcement? It seems we are looking at two separate spaces: the citizens being served and the officers themselves.

Recent incident of police involved shootings and death have resulted in community concern on the systemic ‘cracks’ that its citizens are falling through which result in many of the police complaints occurring with individuals who suffer from mental health issues.

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The questions arise of whether we do enough preventative interventions for this community.

What steps do we take to prevent police interactions? What pieces of community policing can aid in reducing police interactions? What is the role of already funded mental health programming in addressing these issues?

Are audits of these programs and their effectiveness for times of police interaction necessary as we expand talks of programming needed to specifically reduce police interactions with high risk potential for violence?

Most recently, Dauphin County has rolled out programming that allows for mental health workers to accompany police in a ‘ride along’ manner to aid in de-escalation during police interactions with individuals who encounter people with mental health diagnosis.

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A collaborative effort from Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick, the county Human Services Department, the Dauphin County Violent Crimes Task Force and the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office have now provided responders to help identify mental health issues during calls, decrease the need for arrest or further escalation, and provide resource coordination for continued care for mental health services.

Some individuals approached are dealing with difficulties with medication compliance and can oftentimes even be undiagnosed. The ride-along aids in the increased need for mental health to, quite literally, be at the forefront of situations involving trauma and stress.

Does the ride along program and co-responder fully exonerate the City’s responsibility to focus on ways to increase efficient mental health services to the community at large? Not by a long shot.

But in looking at how de-escalation and levels of corresponding can aid in addressing the ongoing issue of mentally ill individuals going to jail rather than receiving treatment, it certainly aids and provides a buffer and deterrent as we work simultaneously to bring further resources to case management, transitional housing, psychiatric wards, and counseling services.

Programs that supplement programming that is centered around addressing mental health issues become a necessary component of a law enforcement system that has too often seen and struggled with how to manage citizens suffering from mental illnesses that can lead to deviant behaviors.

But what about the police officer? What resources exist for them in addressing not only their role in being capable of working with those individuals, but also in addressing their own mental health? Is it possible for ride along and co-responders to deescalate the citizen without us looking at the necessary mental space a police officer must be in to do their job?

The answer in short is no.

Therefore, the work must be happening from many angles. The County has done the work in structuring law enforcement, mental health, and legal spaces like the District Attorney to work collaboratively to manage the problem.

The ball now lands at the feet of the city’s initiative, and further leadership across several levels to manage the mental health resources for those whose aim is to serve and protect.

Continued resilience, trauma lead training that helps officers to identify concerns with their own spaces of concern must occur on a continuum, as well. One cannot occur without the other.

Given recent and past history, there’s been an increased emphasis on examining the mental health program and training provided to officers. Training that’s rooted in trauma-informed care, self-care and resilience training and identifying personal issues preventing appropriate work are at the top of the priorities list for those who want to see more resources funneled to address a police officer’s personal circumstances with addressing their own mental health and trauma throughout their tenure

Therefore, while ride along and co responders can certainly help to navigate those interactions, both the officer and citizens must have adequate preventative spaces with an abundance of resources to aid both in how they present during the interaction.

It is only through both community policing and resource coordination and in diligent law enforcement trauma-focused training can both come to work through police interactions with minimal probability of escalation, with lessened untimely occurrences of death and violence.

As we look at Gov. Tom Wolf’s and the nation’s response through policies such as “8 Can’t Wait” and other initiatives, mental health and support for those assigned to this duty should be taken into consideration.

The role that a police officer’s direct mental health has in the work that they do directly contributes to not only their willingness to establish themselves as public servants, it also lends itself to increased spaces for community policing.

A community that feels supported in their mental health services in a preventative manner can reconfigure their feelings on law enforcement’s role as a secondary responder to their ailments.

Their first responder being the strengthened mental health services needed ready and in position in their own community. The call for mental health reform continues to be multilayered, and each piece should not only be secured in funding, but in stakeholder support in order for policies to pass which enrich those programs for their continued success.

Opinion contributor Ana White, of Harrisburg, is the owner of Way With Words Consulting Services, LLC., which specializes in diversity and inclusion professional development training. She also works in mental health services in the Harrisburg area. Her work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.