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Police-Mental Health Co-Deploy Team Expands In Spokane

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

A Spokane program that pairs police officers with mental health professionals has expanded.

The program has been widely praised for helping to divert people away from jail to mental health and other needed services.

Frontier Behavioral Health says three newly-hired and trained mental health professionals are now riding with patrol officers as part of a local behavioral health unit.  One more will be added soon. Money to pay them comes from a new grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Frontier’s chief operating officer, Jan Tokumoto, says two counselors are assigned to ride with Spokane police officers and two with sheriff’s deputies. She says the grant also provides for supervisory help.

“We were able to hire a sergeant that will be over all of our co-deploy teams. That is huge because that gives us one person that we can all now coordinate services with," Tokumoto said.

Spokane Police Sgt. Terry Preuninger says the additions means there are now six co-deploy teams on duty at some time during the week. He says one of those helped with a case this week.

“Police officers responded to a call and a guy literally answered the door with a shotgun. Fortunately that call was handled quickly and nothing bad happened," Preuninger said.

The call caught the attention of the patrol commander.

“So he called over to the BHU sergeant and said, ‘Hey, is this something you guys want?’ They had resources available, so they immediately went up and took the call," he said.

When they got there, Preuninger says they found a house that was a mess. A woman who admitted to having mental health issues and her boyfriend had been using drugs in front of four children. A firearm was within reach of the kids. The co-deploy team convinced the woman to go to the hospital for treatment and the children were put into safer situations.

“These people here, they’ll do follow up with them, when they have time, months down the road, a year down the road. They’re going to be able to collect information so that they have their own set of files so when a person in crisis either needs or reaches out for help, or if they have time to do follow up with them, they can," he said.

Jan Tokumoto says the people running the behavioral health unit are gathering data and adjusting to what they learn.

“With every month that goes by, we see an increase in encounters. We see an increase in our diversion rate from jail and from the emergency departments," she said.

And they see instances where the teams are able to keep situations from escalating.

Preuninger says the six officers riding with the mental health professionals are senior officers who sought out their new assignments. He says the symbiotic relationship between the officers and the counselors will help both.

“Imagine what that officer’s going to learn from the clinician, watching them interact and do what they do and vice versa. You’re also going to have mental health professionals who are going to get a much better understanding, not just of what the police officer does, but able to help facilitate even quicker and better results because they understand what’s going on on the law enforcement side," Preuninger said.

For now, the co-deployment teams are founded by outside sources. If their program proves to be successful, Preuninger says that could make it easier to sell to elected officials when the funding burden shifts to local governments.