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Iowa City Council creates mental health position to help answer police calls

Liaison role part of city's effort to change to community policing model

The Iowa City Police Department logo is shown on a squad car in Iowa City in 2015. (The Gazette)
The Iowa City Police Department logo is shown on a squad car in Iowa City in 2015. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Last year, a mental health professional responded to 429 calls for service with the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

Of those calls, 89 percent were diverted from arrest, according to Sarah Nelson, chief operating officer at Foundation 2.

Now, with support from the City Council, Iowa City will implement a similar model with hopes for similar results. The Iowa City Council on Tuesday formalized a partnership with Foundation 2 and CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank to create a law enforcement liaison position. The liaison will be employed by CommUnity but embedded with the police department.

“It’s providing an opportunity where there wasn’t one before ... for a mental health professional to respond versus police alone,” Nelson said.

Under the proposal, the liaison — a trained mental health and crisis professional — would be a member of CommUnity’s 24-hour Mobile Crisis Service. The liaison would respond to certain calls for service that require the presence of a law enforcement officer. However, officials said the hope is for police to simply secure the scene while allowing the liaison to work closely with the individual in need of assistance.

The liaison position is part of Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin’s plan to restructure the police department toward a community policing model. A key component of Fruin’s plan is to divert as many calls for service as possible from the police department toward community services.

Fruin noted in his memo detailing the position that the city could eventually expect to see more referrals to the Mobile Crisis Service and improved officer discretion.

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While public feedback was not in support of a model that included police presence at mental health crisis calls, City Council members said the liaison position was a step toward diverting those calls from police.

“My personal opinion is this is a part of the process to get us to where we need to be,” Mayor Bruce Teague said. “I’m supporting this. When someone is in a mental crisis, they need the help of a mental health professional.”

The new position will be funded in the first year by a grant from the Mental Health/Disability Services of the East Central Region. The Iowa City Police Department will pay 25 percent of the salary in year two, 50 percent in year three and 75 percent each year after that.

The mental health liaison also will be made available to other jurisdictions in Johnson County when available, officials said.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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