On-Scene Mental Health Services Establishing a Crisis Team

Article excerpt

The expectation that law enforcement officers can address every concern in each situation is daunting and unrealistic. Some departments have adopted special training or used other resources to better serve the needs of citizens. One example involves an on-scene crisis counseling unit (crisis team) comprised of volunteer mental health professionals who respond to calls with police officers. This type of program, as well as crisis counseling in general, have proven useful and helpful for both officers and victims as they deal with such situations as domestic violence, homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and other traumatic experiences. The authors, seeking to understand the benefits of a mental health-based response (one not limited to mental illness or domestic violence) to those in crisis, created surveys and examined responses from victims and officers involving the impact of this intervention. (1)


Creating the Crisis Team

Lubbock, Texas, located in the northwestern part of the state, has over 200,000 residents. The Lubbock Police Department employs approximately 400 officers and averages 130,000 calls for service each year. A former chief created the agency's crisis team following a discussion with the director of the local crisis help line and referral center. Both recognized the common phenomenon of crime victims, especially those of domestic violence, who want to cooperate with law enforcement to change their circumstances, yet return to their original situation within days of the incident that prompted police intervention. In an effort to change such circumstances, the chief asked several employees to travel to Austin, Texas, to learn about their crisis team program for implementation in Lubbock. As a result, the Lubbock Police Department's Crisis Team program began in July 2000 with the primary goal of resolving domestic disputes, especially in cases where officers have been repeatedly called. The program also seeks to reduce the incidence of domestic violence, free officers to perform the duties for which they were better trained, provide necessary support to victims, stabilize volatile situations, and give referral information. Over time, due to the needs of victims, the team began responding to a wider variety of crises that included sexual assaults, suicide intervention, traffic fatalities, grief support, and homicides.

Mental health professionals were recruited from the community to volunteer for the team. Out of the 61 volunteers over the life of this program, the majority (57 percent) had a bachelor's degree in a mental health-related field, 38 percent had a master's degree (often in counseling), and 5 percent had a doctorate. Further, 54 percent had a background in psychology and 18 percent in social work. Others had training in family studies and pastoral care.

Identifying Responsibilities

These volunteers provide "crisis intervention, judicial advocacy, and information and referral services." (2) They determine if those with whom they come in contact present a danger to themselves or others and then take appropriate action, which may entail coordinating with officers or initiating the necessary medical response via police radio. Volunteers also may assess at-risk individuals (e.g., children, elderly, and disabled) to ensure safety and support and contact particular agencies, such as child and adult protective services, as required by law. Other roles include describing victim rights and compensation, providing information on typical psychological reactions, explaining and helping individuals with petitions for an emergency protective order, assisting in contacting sources of social support, protecting victims from the media, and coordinating with law enforcement (e.g., giving statements to detectives, supplying officers with pertinent information about a crime, establishing liaison between victims and officers, and offering information about jail release dates and times). …