Public Safety

Cedar Rapids police changing response to mental health calls with crisis intervention team, mental health liaison

The entrance of the Cedar Rapids Police Station. (Gazette File)
The entrance of the Cedar Rapids Police Station. (Gazette File)

CEDAR RAPIDS — It was roughly seven years ago when Cedar Rapids Police Officer Victoria Syverson realized officers needed more options when it came to dealing with people in crisis or those suffering from mental health disorders.

The realization, she said, was spurred by a man with whom the police had had multiple encounters.

“In 30 days, we had gotten 67 calls about him,” Syverson said.

Some called because they were afraid of him — he was a large man, bald and covered in tattoos. Others called because he was yelling, acting combative or talking to himself.

“Sometimes he would just walk up to people and hit them,” Syverson said.

Other times he fought with police, and on at least one occasion, tried to disarm an officer. The man was in and out of jail and hospitals, and the situation wasn’t improving.

“I just thought we have to be able to do something different,” Syverson said. “Otherwise we’re just shifting this man — and others who have similar issues — from the hospital to the jail and then back out on the streets.”

Police confront a lack of options

But at that time, officers didn’t have many choices when responding to calls regarding a person in crisis, she said.

“If that person committed a crime we could take them to jail,” she said. “Or if we believed the person was a danger to himself or others, we could take him to the hospital and try to get an emergency committal. And sometimes there is nothing we can do except tell that person’s loved one or friends or neighbor to get that person some help and leave.”

That lack of options still exists, but the Cedar Rapids Police Department has worked to adapt.

In 2017, the department created a Crisis Intervention Team — a unit that consists of 13 officers who are trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation. Last year, the department added a law enforcement liaison from Foundation 2 who can help when someone is in crisis.

Liaison takes ‘a different approach’

“Really, it’s my job to come in with a different approach,” Foundation 2 Law Enforcement Liaison Nicole Watters said. “Maybe that person is afraid — the police uniform can be intimidating — or maybe that officer has tried to build a rapport with that person but couldn’t. I can come in and talk to that person and see what they need as far as help goes.”

In many cases, Watters said she will stay with that person, even after officers have left, and get them connected to resources that could help. And, if that person needs to be hospitalized or committed, Watters said she often will stay until they find a bed, freeing up officers to go back out and patrol.

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In the past year, Syverson said there has been a substantial drop in the time officers spend on hospital duty.

“Since 2014, we have seen an increase in committals by about 30 percent,” Syverson said. “But, at the same time, we have seen a decrease of about 35 percent in the amount of time officers have to spend waiting at a hospital for that person to be placed.”

A lot of that, Syverson said, has to do with Watters, in addition to the work done by the crisis intervention team.

Help for more than 200 people

Numbers provided by Foundation 2 indicate Watters was dispatched 247 times between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019. But Watters disputes that number, saying it likely is counting only the initial dispatch and not all the follow-up visits she makes on her own.

Public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said since Watters came into her liaison position in February 2018, the police department is aware of more than 200 people who have received referrals or services.

But when it comes to measuring the success of the program’s first year, Syverson said to look no further than some of the people who have been helped.

She cited the case of a homeless man who had been the subject of frequent calls. The man, she said, exhibited aggressive and inappropriate behavior, including carrying knives and starting fires.

“He was one of those people that even the other homeless thought he needed to go somewhere,” Watters said.

It took a while, but Syverson and Watters eventually got the man committed, and after months of hospitalization, he was placed in a residential facility where he was connected with help.

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“He’s now a completely different guy,” Syverson said. “He’s stable on his meds, he’s off the street, and he’s in a much better situation now.”

Building bridge between police, hospitals

The program still is in its beginning stages. But, Watters said, she has a vision for her position.

“Ultimately I’d like to bridge that gap between the hospitals and the police department,” she said. “Right now it can kind of be frustrating for both sides — when officers bring someone in for a committal and they don’t meet the criteria, that’s frustrating for both the doctors and the officers for different reasons, and it can sometimes seem like they are working against each other. I’m hoping to bridge that gap and broaden the understanding on both sides so we can all work better together to help those people who are struggling.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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