Mental health/substance use clinician joins Smyrna police on calls

SMYRNA — Being roused from sleep at 3:50 a.m. for a part-time work call was never so rewarding or necessary.

People have problems 24 hours a day, seven days a week somewhere, so Jim Deel quickly joined Smyrna Police to solve a recent mental health crisis before sunrise.

Since last month, the clinician/counselor has joined law enforcement officers in the northernmost Kent County town on calls to assist those in turmoil and guide them to proper resources.

A $47,000 federal grant allowed Connections Community Support Programs to provide an expert riding with officers to incidents often involving persons with mental health issues and/or substance use disorders.

Mr. Deel reports to the police department several days a week (sometimes at a moment’s notice), and spends 20 hours either responding to incidents or proactively following up on previous contacts with folks in distress.

“My tongue is my equipment, whether it’s talking people through something, asking questions to better understand the situation or de-escalating an incident,” he said.

There’s priority on finding the proper support course for substance use or mental health concerns, and securing services quicker than police alone can orchestrate.

If Connections isn’t the best immediate option, Mr. Deel’s vast understanding of Delaware’s supportive agencies and providers kicks in with quick contacts and referrals.

“There’s value in streamlining a process to find help that doesn’t involve a lot of prying eyes and preserves a person’s dignity,” he said.

In the past six weeks, Mr. Deel has been on hundreds of calls, actively participating in 20 to 30 calls for service.

The daily responses can range from a casual drug user to paranoid schizophrenic in the midst of a delusional episode, calling out for in-patient hospitalizations or substance abuse treatment center options.

In down time, officers take the specialist around town, seeking out residents clearly in need of guidance. For example, a man police contacted daily on shoplifting, loitering, begging for money complaints that had him banned from nearly every business in Smyrna was referred to in-patient care instead of continuing inclusion into the criminal justice system.

“All staff here in Smyrna really works well with the community and there’s a high level of trust there that makes it easy to engage with the residents,” Mr. Deel said.

Cpl. Donner described the partnership as adding another “tool” for police to call on to address a situation not necessarily rising to arrest-worthy but requiring action nonetheless.

“We always seek to provide the best and most appropriate type of assistance when called for help,” he said, noting that the response team can assist local police jurisdictions as well.

“Referring citizens to mental health and/or substance use disorder treatment is often burdensome and very time consuming. Having a mental health clinician on board with our officers will save time, provide expert help to those in need and ultimately allow our officers to get back on the street faster to help more people.

“This program is a win-win for the people who need treatment, as well as the Smyrna community as a whole who expect and deserve excellent and available police resources.”

Complex issues rising

Mental health and substance use response training begins at the police academy and continues through in-service education and outside seminars, but officers are increasingly challenged by calls involving complex issues.

“For the most part, SPD officers are very familiar with our local residents and their needs,” Cpl. Donner said. “However, as Smyrna grows each and everyday, our population and visitors balloon and we cannot always be prepared for what we are walking into.”

Also, Cpl. Donner said, “Our officers have a trained clinician available to them with resources that they never imagined. Furthermore, the availability of the clinician allows our officers to quickly diagnose a situation and determine if it is truly a police matter.

“If it is not, the clinician can step in and the officer can get back to more traditional police duties and answering 911 calls, etc.”

So far, “Officers have generally been receptive to the addition of this resource,” Cpl. Donner said. “Where they once had to brainstorm how to handle a call for service that was not an underlying criminal matter, they now have the answer riding right next to them.

“This partnership has opened up all of our eyes to some of the resources available to help folks in need, resources beyond our scope in many cases.”

Police work is inherently dangerous at times, and Mr. Deel dons the same bullet-resistant vest that officers wear.

“He remains inside of the patrol car until the officer he is riding with deems it safe for him to come out and assist,” Cpl. Donner said.

Mr. Deel who works full time for the State of Delaware as a crisis interventionist says he feels safer in Smyrna because “I’m with an officer at all times.”

The New Castle County Police Department partnered with Connections in a similar program in February through a U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance grant, and the apparent effectiveness (over 100 people assessed for behavioral health services) warranted expansion. Director of Criminal Justice and Community Partnerships Amy Kevis credited Smyrna PD for stepping forward and embracing the opportunity.

“Smyrna has always been very forward leaning and when we looked for an agency to take part they were chomping at the bit asking what do we need to do to facilitate this, how soon can we get this going,” she said.

‘A unique ability’

When the grant became available, Ms. Kevis immediately thought of Mr. Deel as the person to hire, based on his experience and personal touch.

“Jim has a unique ability to build a rapport with people very quickly … he has a really nice way of connecting with people,” she said.

Smyrna’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation grant was provided through the Delaware Center for Health Innovation’s Healthy Neighborhood Initiative. Ms. Kevis said an application for extension has been made to continue the program.

“This partnership allows police to effectively respond to a public health emergency with more appropriate tools to help people get the help they need,” she 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.”

According to Elizabeth Romero, director of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, “We must engage more people suffering with substance use disorder and mental illness as a way to connect them with treatment.

“This partnership between Smyrna Police and Connections is another step forward in connecting individuals in need with care that is high-quality, comprehensive, coordinated, evidence-based and person-centered.

“Once a person is engaged with treatment, we can pair them with peer recovery specialists who will help them navigate the treatment system and stay connected to the care they need.”


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