Public Safety

Why Marion police are embedding a mental health counselor

New position will help people in crisis, keep officers on street

Marion Police Officer Tom Daubs talks to students in 2018 at Vernon Middle School in Marion. He says that having a menta
Marion Police Officer Tom Daubs talks to students in 2018 at Vernon Middle School in Marion. He says that having a mental health counselor on the Marion force will free up officers’ time and also better help people in crisis. (The Gazette)
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MARION — When Tom Daubs first started working as a cop, calls involving a mental health issue “weren’t nearly as common as they are now.”

“But we still don’t have many options in place, as far as dealing with them,” said Daubs, public information officer for the Marion Police Department.

That’s why the department is working with Foundation 2 to add a crisis intervention counselor who will respond with officers on mental health calls.

The Marion City Council OK’d the position earlier this month, with the goal of having someone hired by year’s end.

The Cedar Rapids Police Department started a mental health liaison program two years ago and has since created a mental health unit of two Foundation 2 liaisons, a mental health officer and a sergeant.

Foundation 2 is a Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit that offers mobile crisis services and other mental health services.

Data shows 5 percent of the 170,455 calls Marion police officers fielded — between Jan. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2020 — had a mental health component — someone in crisis, a juvenile with behavioral issues, a welfare check or someone who was suicidal.

Those kinds of calls take time to resolve, often tying up officers for hours, Daubs said.

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The Marion Police Department has 46 officers, with five to 10 officers on shift, depending on the day and time, Daubs said.

In the past five years, he said, Marion police officers spent nearly 8,000 hours handling mental health calls — hours they were taken off the streets, leaving a shift short-handed.

“Calls involving a possible mental health issues will typically require a two-officer response, and whether you have 20 officers working or four officers working or two officers working, that’s going to be a staffing issue,” Daubs said.

“And then it’s also a matter of what is it that’s driving the issue, and does the officer have the capability or the capacity or the resources available to take them someplace other than the emergency room.”

By having a mental health liaison, “that person could go and relieve that officer and sit with that patient, and we know that the patient will be comfortable and feel safe with the liaison because they will be sitting with someone who has experience working with people in similar situations and knows what to say and how to act,” Daubs said.

Additionally, he said, a police uniform sometimes can exacerbate a situation, “further agitating the person in crisis, whereas a crisis intervention counselor who is coming in, wearing plain clothes, may be able to better de-escalate the situation and make more headway.”

The goal for the liaison program, Daubs said, is to better help those in crisis, while freeing up officers to work the streets and reduce the number of committals and jail bookings.

Emily Blomme, executive director of Foundation 2, said a trained counselor can provide resources and support.

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“What we know is that when a trained counselor can show up, with the support of a mobile crisis team and do that de-escalation on-site, do that suicide screening and assessment, if need be, we can reduce the number of jail admissions and reduce the number of hospitalizations, and the co-responder model allows us to do that more effectively,” she said.

Marion police are the second agency in the area to add a crisis intervention counselor, but Blomme said several other agencies, including the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, are investigating similar programs.

“In a perfect world, every agency would have a law enforcement liaison embedded in their department,” Blomme said. “Because it’s that collaboration — that teamwork — that is going to have the most impact.

“And it’s that co-responder model that I think really makes this program so effective, because it is not only expanding the reach of our mobile crisis resources, but what we also see is that officers learn more — perspective changes. The culture of the department is modified and improved — and that’s because they’re exposed to watching someone do the work, day in and day out.”

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

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