Milford police may add mental health unit

MILFORD — Members of City Council’s Police Committee heard from an expert on mental health matters in law enforcement at their last meeting.

Amy Kevis, a former New Castle County police officer who also has served as the director of emergency services for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, presented to the committee Monday.

Ms. Kevis now runs a nonprofit called Partners in Public Safety Solutions.

The city is considering contracting mental health experts to work alongside the police through Ms. Kevis’ organization.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this anymore,” Ms. Kevis said of the mental health and substance abuse crises plaguing the nation and the state.

“I understand the challenges that law enforcement is dealing with these days in trying to figure out how to handle these folks and get them the best health they need,” she said.

“I think it would be helpful for the officers of Delaware to be part of the treatment continuum, in that they can refer people to treatment,” she said.

Ms. Kevis has helped create programs like this for police departments in New Castle County, Smyrna and Georgetown.

“Really, what they’re doing is screening and referring to treatment along with the police,” Ms. Kevis said. “They’re just leveraging the opportunity police have to interface with these folks at the time of contact to refer them into treatment.”

Milford Police Chief Kenneth Brown agreed it would be easier to get those struggling with behavioral health issues the help they need.

“What we presently do if we have a person who needs a mental evaluation, we take them to the (emergency room) and, a lot of times, an officer would have to sit there with them,” he said.

“In order to get a commitment, it would take a police officer and a doctor to sign a commitment, whereas now with this clinician, they are able to take the place of the doctor, so we can commit them right there from the street and take them to a proper facility,” Chief Brown said.

Members of the committee had a lot of questions about how exactly a program like this would work.

“Would you have people responding out with the officers to decide if they were going to take action with the person, trying to find out if it’s more of a mental health issue (or are) officers then going to call you in after they evaluate the situation and make sure the scene is safe for the counselor?” Councilman Andrew Fulton asked.

Ms. Kevis said different departments have taken different approaches.

“New Castle County actually rides with the officers. They have an entire behavioral health team now,” she said. “Smyrna has the clinician ride with them sometimes. Sometimes, the clinician stays in the office and does follow-ups. I think Georgetown is doing a hybrid, as well.”

Ms. Kevis said that “the most effective interface is when the clinician is right there to leverage that authority that the police have.”

In her mind, safety is always the first priority.

“Scene safety and officer safety is always first. The officers would do what they do in every situation. They make sure the scene is safe. They make sure the person is safe,” she said.

She explained that it’s only “once the situation is under control (that) the clinician would come in and do an assessment.”

Mayor Archie Campbell had a more specific scenario in mind, referring to a situation Jan. 5, when 27-year-old Brandon Roberts was fatally shot by Milford police after they responded to reports that he was being violent toward his fiancee.

Archie Campbell

Mr. Roberts was reportedly going through a mental health crisis and was armed with a knife, police said.

“When the dispatch got the call, … they said that the person hasn’t been taking his or her meds and that he’s got a knife,” the mayor said, describing the situation. “Now, when police officers get there, he’s talking through the door, and they’re trying to get in. So when does the clinician get involved?”

Ms. Kevis said a clinician could have attempted a de-escalation at the scene.

“If there was a situation like that, where an individual had a weapon, and there was safe space between the individual and the responding officers, there would be an attempt at verbal de-escalation by the clinician and the officers,” she said.

But Ms. Kevis made it clear that in her program, clinicians don’t come onto the scene unless the responding officer wants them there and deems the situation safe.

“The officers are ultimately in control, so if the officers decide they don’t want to bring a clinician in,” they don’t have to, she said. “Once that trust is built up, then they’ll bring the clinician in to help them de-escalate the situation.”

In terms of funding the program, Ms. Kevis recommended that Milford turn to federal grants.

She said that due to the opioid epidemic, a lot of government money has been made available to law enforcement and social services groups to get people the help they need before they end up in jail.

Ms. Kevis believes this money would go a long way in helping society’s neediest elements.

“The estimate is that between 80 and 85% of the folks in the Department of Corrections, in Delaware at least, and probably across the country, have a substance abuse or behavioral health disorder that needs treatment,” she said.

“That’s not really the best place for them,” Ms. Kevis said. “What’s happening is we’re arresting these folks and these charges are getting dismissed more now than ever because (attorneys general) across the country are familiar with behavioral health issues, so the person is back on the street again.”

At the end of the committee meeting, members agreed to reach out to their counterparts in Smyrna and Georgetown to better understand how their programs work and to begin looking into different funding options.