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When the mental health and public safety millage began funding services in Washtenaw County, a key goal was increasing access for rural residents.
While the eastern part of Washtenaw County is urban, the western part is mainly agricultural and rural. Chelsea, with 5,500 people, is one of the few large centers.
“One of the big issues was, how does the western part of the county get the [mental health] services that the eastern part has?” says Ed Toth, chief of police in Chelsea.
Handling mental health crises, in particular, is a big challenge in small towns.
“We have two to three officers on during any shift,” says Melissa Johnson, the former mayor of Chelsea who finished serving this past October. “Mental health crisis calls can take a considerable amount of time.”
To better serve individuals in rural communities like Chelsea, the millage funded an expansion of the Washtenaw County Community Mental Health mobile crisis team. The team collaborates with law enforcement to reach people in crisis.
“For a department of our size, that’s a really important service,” says Johnson. “We expand our resources by collaborating [with the crisis team] because it gives us access to a whole set of programs easily, rather than the police department trying to navigate those services.”
Johnson believes that pooling county resources and sending them where they are most needed is more effective than “each small community trying to duplicate services.”
Chelsea police called the mobile crisis team six times in 2021. “Being able to fund those types of services full-time for six to ten cases a year is a challenge for most small communities,” says Johnson. Instead, collaborating with the country-wide crisis team “shifts that burden away from the police officers, who aren’t mental health experts, and allows those who are experts to help individuals get the services they need.”
Before the mobile crisis team, the Chelsea police relied on an outpatient psychology service to assist with and follow up on mental health related police calls. But it could be difficult to coordinate between the agencies and refer individuals.
“There was a lot of frustration,” says Melisa Tasker, program administrator at CARES, the expanded team at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) that was created using millage dollars. Sometimes law enforcement would take an individual to the hospital, only to have them discharged several hours later. “There was this revolving door of folks in and out of the jail and emergency room.”
Individuals could not always access the array of care available to them, “because law enforcement just didn’t know what existed,” says Tasker.
Now, WCCMH provides a 24/7 mobile crisis team staffed with mental health clinicians. The team collaborates with law enforcement across Washtenaw County to respond to mental health calls.
“The CARES team is outstanding,” says Toth, Chelsea’s chief of police. “I can’t say enough good things about them. Everytime we call them, they’re out here and engaged, trying to help the individual whatever way they can.”
The fact that the crisis team operates 24 hours a day is a key reason the collaboration is a success, says Toth.
He points out that mental health calls tend to come in “at ten o’clock at night or two o’clock in the morning.” When the Chelsea police relied on other mental health support, officers would call in the middle of the night and get an answering service. “At eight o’clock in the morning, someone would call you back,” says Toth. “That doesn’t work in situations where someone could be in crisis mode.”
With the mobile crisis team, Chelsea police don’t have to wait until 8AM anymore. A mental health professional can come meet them at any time, day or night.
How does the collaboration work?
“The way our emergency response services are set up, if you’re in a crisis, any type of crisis, you call 911,” says Tasker of CARES.
Law enforcement responds to 911 calls, Tasker continues, “but they're not always the experts in handling certain situations. [Now] we can be a part of the response to mental health crises. We have access to more services and options than law enforcement does, and can offer expertise that leads to better outcomes for the individual.”
“We don’t want to arrest somebody when mental health issues are causing that criminal behavior,” says Toth. “With the CARES team, we don’t have to arrest. We can get individuals the help they need without getting them in the jail system.”
When the police call the mobile crisis team, mental health professionals come out immediately to evaluate the individual. They determine whether hospitalization is necessary or whether they can find a middle ground -- like scheduling a psychiatrist appointment tomorrow morning, for example.
The police may call the crisis team for several reasons, says Tasker, including wanting more information about an individual in WCCMH’s system, asking WCCMH to follow up with an individual, or requesting that a mental health professional meet them on a call.
Sometimes officers call to say “I think this person has a mental illness. Have you ever met them before? Do you know who they are?” says Tasker.
If WCCMH has supported an individual before, the mobile crisis team may be able to share information that can improve the interaction. For example, knowledge about an individual may help the crisis team determine whether an individual may have consumed substances and needs a medical assessment, or whether their behavior is a chronic symptom of a known mental health condition.
If it’s clear to the officers that the individual needs to be taken to the hospital, they can call the CARES team to follow up with the individual there. If an individual does need to be arrested, the crisis team can follow up with the WCCMH mental health team in the jail.
There are also times when law enforcement may send the mobile crisis team instead of officers, or with officers at a distance in case the crisis team needs their support. “It depends on how the CARES team feels comfortable doing the intervention,” says Toth.
After the crisis, the WCCMH team continues to support the individual. “We provide safety planning, follow-up calls and outreach days after the initial encounter. And then we help people connect to our programs at WCCMH or another provider,” says Tasker.
WCCMH knows that many of the people using their services have frequent contact with law enforcement. To better serve the community, they’ve been building relationships with law enforcement for years.
Those relationships supported the success of the collaboration between the crisis team and law enforcement when it began. And building personal relationships remains central to its success.
“The officers know who is on the crisis team and are confident that if they call, they will get the help they need. On our end, if we’re going out on a scene and we know the officers that are going to be there, that improves the interaction,” says Tasker.
Both organizations put ongoing effort into maintaining relationships as people join and leave the teams.
“There’s mutual respect both ways,” says Tasker. “They know how helpful we can be to them. And we realize how helpful they are to us.”
Chelsea law enforcement embraces the help from the crisis team, and Tasker says the collaboration “absolutely” benefits WCCMH as well.
“It helps us with our mission of meeting people where they’re at and making sure people get through the right door at the right time,” she says.
“I know there’s a lot of discussion about not involving law enforcement in responses to mental health crises,” says Tasker. “As a mental health professional overseeing a team of professionals, I can say that there are a number of situations where we absolutely need law enforcement.”
The crisis team responds independently to the majority of mental health calls. But there are some situations where law enforcement is needed, says Tasker. For example, the crisis team may call for law enforcement support if they need to take a person to the hospital involuntarily, or if they are responding to someone with a history of aggression and weapon possession.
“Sometimes we’re entering into really unsafe situations, and they’re able to have our backs,” says Tasker. “We very much need each other.”
Support from the millage has allowed the mobile crisis team to double its staff, which means the team is better equipped to support law enforcement and the community.
The crisis team, as well as other millage-funded services, are meeting a growing need.
“With the millage funding, the CARES crisis team is more available and responds more quickly. We've also expanded behavioral health services here in Chelsea. There's been more attention to providing those services in rural areas,” says Johnson.
Johnson and Toth both say that while the collaboration allows Chelsea police to handle mental health crises more effectively, they believe a shortage of long-term mental health providers in the area is an ongoing challenge.
“Some of the calls we get are repeat calls,” says Johnson. Long-term services are “really that next step” to prevent some crises before law enforcement is involved.
Story by Cleoniki Kesidis