Dover PD looks to put mental health clinicians in police cars

Jim Deel, who works with the Smyrna and Georgetown police departments, offers de-escalation training for Sussex County volunteers at an Oct. 1 session in Seaford. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

DOVER — Thomas Johnson, chief of the Dover Police Department, has researched the programs and heard some of the success stories that towns like Smyrna and Georgetown have had with getting mental health clinicians to ride along with police officers.

So, naturally, Chief Johnson is interested in starting a similar program in Dover.

However, due to the city’s much larger size, it is going to take the hiring of even more mental health clinicians and greater resources for the state’s capital than it has for smaller jurisdictions.

“We’re hoping that by the end of the year, we’ll be able to try and come up with a cadre of resources that will allow us to deploy in multiple dimensions that will have a component of somebody being in a car with the police officers,” said Chief Johnson, in reference to the mental health clinicians. “More than likely, our community policing resources, because we’re going to be expanding those resources very soon, and (clinicians are) going to do it across most of the waking hours, which will be able to make sure we get the right people in the right place at the right time.”

Amy Kevis, who runs her own nonprofit agency called Partners in Public Safety Solutions, was a police officer in New Castle for several years and noted the lost time and wasted hours police spend in arresting the same individuals time and time again.

She said putting those people in touch with mental health or substance abuse resources could help them break out of that pattern.

“You go to a call, and you don’t know what to do with this person, and you’d think, as a police officer, that locking someone up for a terroristic threatening or some misdemeanor violation is the best thing for them, because you’re getting them off the street,” Ms. Kevis said. “But it actually is not the best thing for them, because what we’ve done, and what has happened to a lot of these people, is we’ve criminalized behavioral health concerns.

“So now, we have these folks who can’t get jobs, who can’t get housing. They’re living in their cars, and they can’t even be functioning members of society because of the criminal arrests on their record that is a black mark and follows them for the rest of their life, and they’re not able to integrate.”

She added, “I was a cop for 20 years, and if somebody needs to be arrested, they need to be arrested, but if somebody needs behavioral health help, arrest isn’t the best place for them, because then, they can become a pariah, and there are repeat calls, and they’re falling down over and over again.”

Chief Johnson agrees that having mental support clinicians on ride-alongs with police officers appears to be a good combination. He just wants to make sure his department takes the time to find the right approach for the city.

“We are trying to take what I describe as a holistic approach to this issue in trying to coordinate before and after — in other words, prevention response and follow-through,” Chief Johnson said. “I kind of put a big challenge in (Lt. Jordan Miller’s) lap to take care of those three dimensions of the problem, but also to address multiple subsets of populations that may be at risk that focuses on our substance abuse folks, our behavioral health folks, and I also wanted to try and see if we can garner an impact on our homeless population, in addition to all the other fine groups that are trying to provide services and install safeguards. I wanted to see if we could go after that, as well.”

Chief Johnson said he will take Dover PD’s resources into account.

“Every jurisdiction is a little bit different. It has different resources available to it. It has different geography, numbers of people to be served against number of resources to serve them,” he said.

The city of Dover was presented with a similar plan just a couple of years ago, but then-Chief Marvin Mailey did not appear to be interested in having mental health clinicians in patrol cars, noting the possible danger they would be facing in the line of duty.

“A couple of years ago, Chief Mailey was presented the opportunity to have a social worker riding with the cops,” said Dover City Councilman Ralph Taylor Jr., who was a Dover policeman for 20 years. “It appeared that there was some kind of disconnect between the law enforcement professionals, as well as the social professionals.

“We want to make sure again that we break down every wall. We talk about police reform, and this was one of the areas of reform.”

Lt. Miller said the possibility of breaking the cycle of arrests for many individuals could well be worth any risk for the Dover Police Department.

“We spend way too much time here in Dover with a loitering compliant or a disorderly conduct that stems from a substance abuse issue, and this is not the first or second time that we’ve been dealing with that subject, which is what’s leading into the arrest,” Lt. Miller said. “Then, it goes over to court, where an officer is spending an hour typing a report, two hours waiting for court, and then for the charges to be dropped in a week … it’s a little disheartening.

“Anything we can do to try to prevent that in the future would be great.”

Ride-along clinician program making inroads
Ms. Kevis has found success in placing mental health clinicians with police departments in New Castle County, Smyrna and Georgetown.

“I realized in the last couple of years that I was out on the street (as a police officer) that there was a lot of mental health and substance abuse concerns that were cycling through the criminal justice system,” she said, “and before we even had our warrants written and back on the street, the individual was released on (own-recognizance) bond or non-bail. Rarely were they kept for any longer than a few hours unless they were incarcerated or they were intoxicated.”

Her experience piqued her interest in finding another way to help, rather than continue to try to arrest her way out of the problem.

She eventually helped start the Hero Help Program in New Castle, placed mental health clinician Jim Deel in Smyrna in 2018 and paired up clinician Michelle Robinson with the Georgetown police. Ms. Robinson was hired full time by that department after the grant for her position eventually ran out.

“We did approach Chief Mailey, hoping that Dover would be able to partner with us,” Ms. Kevis said. “It was going to be a fifty-fifty split between Smyrna and Dover at the time, and things didn’t align at the time, and we weren’t able to place Jim (Deel) with the Dover police, but he still is with Smyrna (and Georgetown).”

The mental health clinician ride-along program is still growing and adapting every day, as the specialists try to reach out and help people before they fall into the cycle of arrests and releases.

“I think success can be measured in a lot of different ways,” said Ms. Kevis. “Folks are now staying in psychiatric hospitals for two to three days, which, if you start to bring out a course of medications for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, those medications don’t even have a chance to start working — and then, that person’s back on the street. Who’s the entity that responds to those calls 24/7? Law enforcement.

“So, as an administrator, having the officers getting an opportunity to maybe get some help in the field and get this person hooked up with services that they need, whether you want to do it in conjunction with the arrests or whether you want to do it in lieu of the arrests, is entirely up to each agency.”

She added: “As law enforcement, we’ve been asked to do lots and lots of things, but I don’t think police need to be social workers. They need to have the professionals with them that can enact as social services.”

Since becoming paired with the Smyrna Police Department, Mr. Deel said he has seen a jump in substance abuse and domestic violence occurrences there, as well as in Georgetown, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m seeing an increase in mental health events. Some of that involves domestic incidents due in part by COVID, with individuals being in situations that have really become a problem, and also an increase in overdoses,” he said. “In terms of most individuals that have a law enforcement background, you’re aware of how most people who have substance abuse issues, they also have a component with regard to mental health concerns.

“People are often just doing what they do just to try to mask the negatives of the day-to-day, and that’s why a lot of them use drugs or alcohol. I’m seeing an increase, and it’s in line with the mental health issues — in Smyrna and Georgetown, both.”

A perfect fit for Smyrna
When Mr. Deel speaks about working alongside members of the Smyrna police, one can hear the pride in his voice, as he is now considered part of the team there.

“From a day-to-day, I see the impact with my interactions with the officers,” said Mr. Deel. “I know most everybody in Smyrna has really welcomed me, and it seems to be a really good fit. We really work together as a team to address the concerns within the community.

“If (police) feel like there’s any potential for any kind of mental health or substance abuse concern, they usually bring me into that situation, and I more or less at that point take the lead on it. I have a background in mental health and substance abuse issues.”

That is where Mr. Deel takes over and provides connections that will take the individual to a mental health facility in search of treatment rather than an expensive emergency room.

Smyrna Police Chief Torrie James said the addition of Mr. Deel to the department has been invaluable.

“What Jim brings to this department is, as a small police department, Jim being able to assess somebody for us — we don’t have a facility — we have to (transport) them from Smyrna to Dover, and they have to sit there for hours,” Chief James said. “Jim goes from Point A to Point B, and we skip that middle portion right then and there, so he saves us a lot of time and energy.

“What Jim also brings us is we all know right now that the world of policing has changed, and there’s no more arresting ourselves out of an issue. We have learned to ask ourselves a certain question, and that question is, ‘Why? Why are we continuing to come out to this house? Why are we continuing to deal with individuals?’ What we have now is we have Jim. We have a resource. Jim is in the car with the officer. He is that person that is there to give them that opportunity to get the help that they need — and immediately.”

Chief James said statistics prove that if officers give a suspect an option to come to the police department the next day, so they can help them out, that not many would pursue that option.

Mr. Deel, however, can provide immediate help and support.

“We get phone call after phone call about people that really need him,” the chief said. “He’s doing it one person at a time, and he has definitely made a difference in this town.”

He also brings an additional aspect to the Smyrna police force that it might not have been expecting.

“One of the last pieces that (Mr. Deel) brings to this department that a lot of people don’t think about is all the health and wellness issues,” said Chief James. “I think that all of us in this job know that we (police) don’t really talk.

“My (officers) have gotten comfortable enough with Jim that he has become a resource for them to talk about their problems, whether it be work-related problems or home-related problems, he has become a resource to them, and they’re starting to open up with him.”

Slowly but steadily coming to Dover
Dover Police Chief Johnson met with Ms. Kevis, Mr. Deel and others in July, “so we could start wrapping our head around the scope of the problem and the availability of resources.”

The group has since reconnected and tried to dissect the Dover Police Department’s current disconnect with mobile crisis resources.

“We’ve been trying to put all the puzzle pieces together, (so) that way, around the clock and around the calendar, a Dover police officer has a playbook, and it has all of the options that are available,” Chief Johnson said. “We’re also trying to tie in the funding component with that. We’ve got folks at the state level that we’re in conversations with, and we’re watching the models.

“Delaware State Police has just rolled out a model that they’re installing for the areas around Dover, and one of the things I was worried about when we were talking about concept was not letting people fall through the cracks because of jurisdictional lines.”

The chief added: “When you have Bayhealth (Hospital) in Dover, other police agencies bring people that might be under the services of somebody outside of Dover into Dover and what happens upon discharge? They’re on foot, and they’re on State (Street), and they’re on Governors (Avenue), and they’re in Dover. Continuity of their care would be important to make sure that the resources that are caring for them are all talking to one another.

“There’s a lot of moving parts in the direction that we’re going.”

Lt. Miller is confident that Dover will soon have mental health clinicians in its patrol cars. He only had one question.

“In regards to substance abuse and a social worker with the police department, I couldn’t agree with Ms. Kevis or Mr. Deel more,” he said. “I agree with everything they said. As a matter of fact, we agreed with them so much that by the end of the meeting, the only question we had was, ‘Hey, how do we get a Jim Deel?’”