Mental health connection riding along on Georgetown police patrols

RL Hughes

GEORGETOWN — An initiative that aims to take a bite out of crime through mental health assessment is copping attention in Georgetown.

Recently, a licensed mental health clinician began ride-along sessions with Georgetown police on patrol to help determine if someone is in crisis and needs substance use or mental health treatment.

Michelle Robinson, the licensed clinician, is assigned to the police department through Connections Alliance. She splits time at the station and with officers on patrol.

“She is riding along, and we have encountered or come across a couple people that we’ve been able to help so far,” said Georgetown Police Chief R.L. Hughes.

“Right now, the clinician is working 30 hours per week,” said Georgetown Police Department spokesman Det. Joey Melvin.

With clinical assessment — and victim approval — efforts can be made to divert the criminal justice/prosecution route in favor of rehabilitation and treatment.

“It’s time for us to try a different approach. With that said, I will tell you that our philosophy at Georgetown Police Department is we are a victim-centered agency,” said Chief Hughes. “By that I mean, we will certainly not divert away from arrest if our victim would like to have that. But we’d like to just have the discussion with the victim and say, ‘This is what we see is happening.’ If the victim desires arrest, that’s fine, absolutely. But at the same time, we want to be honest with the victim and say, ‘We think this person perhaps has an addiction problem … we would like to be able to put them in touch with our mental health clinician, and perhaps they go into a program for rehabilitation.”

The partnership between the Georgetown Police Department and Connections Community Support Programs began in late February and is paid for by the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, Connections spokesman Adam Taylor said.

Chief Hughes said this service has been offered to “some of the other police agencies here in Sussex County.”

Delaware State Police are looking to study this initiative. State police spokeswoman Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe said “Delaware State Police are getting ready for an exploratory study in Kent/Sussex county, that is very similar to what Georgetown just started.”

However, funding will only cover the program in Georgetown through April.

“The current grant runs until the end of the April. It’s a short window. At the end of it we’ll take a measure,” said Chief Hughes. “We’ll evaluate and see where we are and then look for other funding opportunities. Connections and also the folks with Lt. Governor’s Behavioral Health Consortium that the Lt. Governor (Bethany Hall Long) has been heading up, they can point us in the right direction for some additional funding — we hope.”

“There are lots of compelling needs out in the community, that is for sure around this issue, so we would have to compete for those funds,” Chief Hughes said. “I do believe it is something that could be very good for us in Georgetown, and actually for Sussex County.”

The program is the first of its kind in Sussex County. It comes at a time when some law enforcement agencies nationally are trying to refer people with mental health or substance use disorders to treatment rather than arrest them.

“Addiction, it’s terrible,” Chief Hughes said. “It gets ahold of folks and they just can’t break it. We need to provide more resources for them and try to break that because it makes us a better community if we can break that cycle of addiction.”

The Georgetown Police/Connections Alliance hopes to do just that, banking on the belief that getting people into treatment is more appropriate, more effective and less expensive than having them enter the criminal justice system.

Elizabeth Romero, director of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said the partnership will help engage people with Delaware’s system of care and help them live the best lives possible.

“Meeting people where they are and engaging them in treatment for substance use and mental health issues is critical,” Ms. Romero said. “The Georgetown Police Partnership with Connections and funded by my division provides an additional gateway to Delaware’s system of care established through the START Initiative. Engaging those in need with a person-centered, high-quality system of care while also meeting their accompanying needs for housing, employment, education and other wraparound services is the best way to assist them on their road to recovery.”

Chief Hughes agreed.

“The recently established partnership between Georgetown Police and Connections is a tremendous tool for our officers,” said Chief Hughes. “As we combat the opioid epidemic, the ability to have a resource with immediate presence, expedites the process to get those in crisis the help they need. While saving time is certainly advantageous for our officers, more importantly, providing the best possible route to wellness is even more. The Georgetown Police Department is proud to take a comprehensive approach to keeping our community safe by partnering with the Connections Alliance.”

“I think that does two things. It ensures that victims have a say in what is going on and it also gives us the opportunity to divert someone away from perhaps entering into criminal justice system,” said Chief Hughes.

The New Castle County and Smyrna police departments partnered with Connections on similar programs last year. More than 100 people the New Castle County team encountered with have been assessed for behavioral health services.

Connections Director of Criminal Justice and Community Partnerships Amy Kevis said she hopes the Georgetown/Connections Alliance will yield the same results.

“This partnership allows police to effectively respond to a public health emergency with more appropriate tools to help people get the help they need,” Ms. Kevis said. “We’ve known for years that we can’t arrest our way out of these issues, and this partnership creates the mechanism to get people into treatment.”

“If history repeats itself by way of what New Castle County Police Department and the Smyrna Police Department have seen the same similar program, we should see some success from this,” Chief Hughes said. “If we can get the person into the appropriate resource or the appropriate service in a timely fashion, I think that’s where we’ll have our most success.”

Connections provides a comprehensive array of behavioral health services at more than 100 locations throughout Delaware and in parts of Maryland. The agency has been operating for more than 30 years and provides services to more than 42,000 people each year.

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