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News / Clark County News

Vancouver police in pilot program that aims to address mental health crises

Sea Mar, city to share grant funding for mental health responder positions

By Jerzy Shedlock, Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: October 11, 2020, 6:00am

The Vancouver Police Department announced Friday that it is partnering with a community-based organization to start a pilot program aimed at improving access to mental health services and treatments.

The city will share grant funding with Sea Mar, a federally qualified health center, to add three full-time mental health responder positions to assist Vancouver police officers in the field “in an on-call capacity during peak (police response) hours,” the police department announced in a news release.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs awarded nearly $315,000 to Vancouver to establish the pilot program. The money is part of $2 million set aside by the Washington Legislature. Nine grants were awarded statewide.

Funds were originally received in September 2019 to share with Clark County and Sea Mar. The Vancouver City and Clark County councils and the health center approved agreements for the use of the money in the following months. Following planning and project development, the pilot was set to begin in March.

The plans were delayed due to COVID-19, according to the police department. No grant money was spent, and still hasn’t been spent, police department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said in an email. The funds are now available to be used through the end of June 2021.

Here’s what having the mental health responders on-hand will mean for police:

The health professionals are expected improve proactive outreach to the communities most needing the services, help with safety planning and foster more positive relationships. The police department says they will add capacity to the “current crisis model” and reduce response times for mental health evaluations while in the field. These efforts should help promote treatment and divert people from spending time in jail, officials said.

When safe and appropriate, officers will call Sea Mar members to respond to their locations and provide a clinical evaluation, and hand off responsibility for treatment and follow-up care.

“The intent of the Enhanced Mobile Crisis Response Team is to provide citizens experiencing a mental health crisis with the opportunity to receive care where they are. It is also designed to divert some citizens from incarceration who have committed low-level crimes while suffering a mental health crisis,” the police department said.

Kapp confirmed that the pilot program is a strengthened version of the adult mobile crisis program Sea Mar operates. It’s unclear exactly what types of situations would create a call for service. Officials most familiar with the program were unavailable Friday.

The police department said the pilot program will build on the success of protocols by further improving collaboration with the court system and prosecutors, with crisis responders, social service providers and advocacy organizations.

Vancouver currently requires 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training for its police officers, and the police department says it is continuing to invest in de-escalation training and strategies.

While funding is limited for the competitive grant program, the city plans to reapply for funding next spring.

“We are fortunate for this opportunity to partner with WASPC and Sea Mar to bring this pilot program and new resources to Vancouver and ensure mental health professionals are used early on so that our officers can focus on more appropriate policing matters,” said Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain.

Lisa Toth, a Vancouver attorney involved in Clark County’s Mental Health Court and advocates for her clients’ access to treatment, said that many times, law enforcement are the first responders to people in crisis, and it is imperative to educate them how to best approach these situations and ultimately defuse them.

Crises can go wrong in a matter of seconds, she said.

“If a mental health professional is able to assist, educate and guide law enforcement on how best to approach situations and circumvent an unnecessary trip to the jail, then I believe it’s valuable and one of many positive steps in a very long process,” Toth said.

Once the mental health responders have been hired and the protocols are put into place, the pilot program will begin, Kapp said. The goal is for the program to launch this month.

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