OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — As mental health calls to local police departments continue increasing, the Omaha Police Department is relying on its Behavioral Health and Wellness Unit to help those who need help move forward.
“I don’t think we even really had an idea of how many mental health-related calls or service calls officers were responding to. Now that we’ve been tracking it for a while, we’re really getting a better idea of just the sheer volume of mental health crisis that people are facing in the community,” says OPD’s Mental Health Coordinator Lindsay Kroll.
In 2020, OPD’s 911 dispatch had 2,688 mental health dispositions. Since January 2021, OPD has already had 820 mental health dispositions and it’s estimated they will have approximately 3,200 by the end of this year.
“We think about people who struggle with mental illness, whether they’re experiencing an acute psychotic episode, or maybe a manic episode or they’re struggling with substance abuse or addiction, or the sheer exposure to a traumatic incident, whether they’re a victim of a crime due to chaotic circumstances in their home. They’re exposed to some unfortunate events that all have a lasting impact on people, and oftentimes law enforcement gets involved in those types of calls,” adds Kroll.
The Behavioral Health and Wellness Unit was created a few years ago, but OPD has continued funneling more resources into mental health support with efforts to not only help the community but to normalize asking for help. It’s also looking to hire two more co-responders.
“It really is a stigma to get help and see a therapist. You don’t always want people to know if you’re doing that, but we have to normalize that behavior and make it okay for people to know it’s okay to get help,” adds Kroll.
As part of its unit, the CORE (Collaborative Outreach Response Engagement) responder squad assists officers with calls related to mental health. The co-responders are embedded in the precinct and have access to police radios, monitor 911 systems for the calls that come in, and self-dispatch to those calls. They typically arrive with responding officers to the scene at the same time.
The squad consists of crisis-trained officers who serve as the gatekeeper between those who need help and resources as well as community agencies so individuals aren’t left alone in a bad situation.
Sgt. Jason Heft, supervisor within the unit says for decades, the resources for mental health weren’t always known.
“Back in the day, I don’t think people were trained with mental health. I don’t think that they had an understanding of what it was like for someone to go through a crisis. So it was a rush to either get them to a hospital or if just generating a report and moving on, and leaving them without resources to move out of that crisis,” says Heft.
Officer Leigh Culver agrees.
“When I first started 15 years ago, it was a lot of times, if we were to go to someone in crisis, we’d see if there was a family member or call a friend and say 'Hey, can you take care of them?” Culver told 3 News Now. “Like Sgt. Heft said, we weren’t really familiar with resources, we didn’t want to take them to the hospital but if you don’t know what’s available, you feel like that’s your only option.”
Culver says the shift now has been for officers to take their time at calls and ask more in-depth questions, listen, be familiar with helpful organizations and partners, and understand that just because someone has mental health issues, it’s not an indicator for criminality.
“Some of the classes we have are on medications, diagnoses, and how to communicate with the elderly and the youth because those are unique populations and you put a mental health issue on top of that and it becomes even more of a challenge,” adds Culver.
The officers also emphasize that just because the CORE squad is called, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an issue. It simply could be letting people know help is available.
“We had a mother call the police department and she was from out of state and her son had just moved to Omaha and he has mental health issues, she said 'I’m concerned, he’s a young kid, he’s there on his own and we want to make sure he’s okay,' so we actually sent officers and a co-responder with his permission just to give him some resources because his parents were so far from home,” said Culver.
Especially with the difficulty of this past year’s hardships, Kroll says she hopes to continue seeing her department grow.
“We know that we’re seeing an increase in suicides. We know we’re seeing an increase in suicide attempts. People are struggling. And so my goal is to really build this unit up to have it as a specialized response on all shifts,” said Kroll.