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Cedar Rapids police expand program for responding to mental health calls
CEDAR RAPIDS - About three years ago, the Cedar Rapids Police Department brought on a crisis intervention counselor to work as a law enforcement liaison and help officers with calls involving people with mental health issues.
The goal of the liaison program, according to mental health unit supervisor Sgt. Chris Bieber, was to provide better options for officers when dealing with people in crisis.
'We all know that Iowa has some serious gaps when it comes to mental health and caring for people in crisis,” Bieber said. 'So this unit was a way that we could fill some of those gaps and also help divert people from jail or the emergency room when possible.”
Bieber was one of the first Cedar Rapids officers to receive crisis intervention training in 2013. He was one of four officers at that time tasked with developing a program that would aid the police department in better handling mental health calls.
What's happened since?
In the past year, the mental health liaison program has expanded from a one-woman show, falling mostly on liaison Nicole Watters' shoulders, to a three-person unit with Bieber as supervisor and Officer Charity Hansel serving as a mental health officer.
The unit also is seeking a second mental health liaison. A second liaison had joined the unit briefly last year, but was later tapped to work with a different law enforcement agency.
'Before bringing Nicole on, we didn't really have many options other than taking that person to jail or the emergency room. And in some cases there was nothing we could do,” Bieber said. 'But now, with this team, a mental health liaison can come to those calls and can stay with that person and work with them and connect them to the resources they need.”
Watters is a crisis intervention counselor at Foundation 2 in Cedar Rapids. Her position with the police started as an experiment of sorts but has since proven invaluable.
'When she started, we found that there was an overwhelming number of calls that were able to handle just by bringing her in and having her work with the person,” Bieber said. 'She was able to build relationships and bring in resources, and she was able to be that bridge between the police department and Foundation 2 and other community resources.”
Having Watters on board was incredibly helpful, Bieber said, but the need for her services was practically nonstop.
Thus the mental health unit was born.
'We were the first police department in our area to have a program like this,” Hansel said. 'And I think that's huge. You know, and this program is going to continue to grow because mental health and mental health crisis is not going to go away.”
Both Marion and Iowa City police have created their own liaison programs in the past year, and other law enforcement agencies have announced their intentions to do the same.
Hansel joined the unit last April after more than 20 years on the force working in various capacities, including as a crisis negotiator, a sex crimes investigator and a school resource officer.
'This was just a natural next step,” she said. 'All of those other things kind of led me to this position. And, you know, I've been secretly watching Nicole and I just thought, that woman is a rock star and I need to be a part of what she's doing.”
The partnership between the two women came easily.
'In a way, we balance each other out,” Hansel said. 'I mean the benefit of this co-responder model is that we bring different strengths to the table. Both of us have similar backgrounds in the work we've done, but Nicole also brings this wealth of community connections and resources and I bring the legal knowledge.”
As of April 1, 2020, the mental health unit was working with 440 clients.
The term client refers to people Watters and Hansel may work with on a regular basis. These are individuals the police regularly deal with or whose issues go beyond a momentary crisis. That's when Watters and Hansel step in, helping to connect them to resources, offering support and working with community partners to ensure those individuals have the help they need.
From last July 1 to Dec. 31, there were 764 mental health related calls for service, Cedar Rapids police said. The mental health team responded to 223 of those calls and diverted all but seven from criminal charges.
'I mean, if that doesn't tell you this program is working,” Hansel said. 'I mean, that's what it's all about for us.”
Recalling a moment last fall, Watters said she was responding to a call when a woman crossed the street and approached her.
'She said, 'You helped my son,' ” Watters recalled.
The woman told Watters her son would get into trouble, get committed, then be let out. It was a cycle she was certain was never going to end, until Watters stepped into the picture.
' ‘You got him the help he needs, and I want you to know that today he has a job, he's sober and he's doing well.' ” Watters recalled the mother saying.
'It's moments like those that bring me back,” Watters added. 'We have some hard days, but when you hear you've made a difference on really difficult cases, how could you not want to keep going and keep working and keep helping.”
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