When Mental Health Crises Arise, Columbus Police Brings Social Workers Along

Dec 23, 2019

Social worker Kristin Moreland changes the car radio from a country station to one that plays Top 40 Hits.          

“He’ll probably change it back,” Moreland says, gesturing to Columbus Police officer Bob Heinzman.

Heinzman climbs into the unmarked vehicle’s driver’s seat, and the music stays at a low, background volume. He and Moreland discuss something they can agree on: The sort of runs they plan to do that day.

Together, their job is to respond to mental health calls that come through police dispatch.

“Now we’re going to head out to a house for a female who we received a referral on, actually,” Moreland says. “It was a call that came into Delaware County, I believe, originally.”

Moreland and Heinzman had checked on the client’s house the day before, but she wasn’t home. Someone else answered the door, but they didn't get any helpful information from the interaction.

“I called her this morning, and in the conversation, the way she was talking was very circular,” Moreland explains. “And her thoughts were very, I guess tangential, just kind of all over the place thinking. To me, it sounded like manic behavior.”

They're going to check on her again today.

“Based on what we see, Bob and I will decide whether she is pink-slipped or left in the community,” Moreland says.

A pink slip is Ohio Form 5122. It lets doctors, police and others have a person temporarily held against their will if they’re deemed a danger to themselves or others. Pink slips have been in the news lately as part of Gov. Mike DeWine’s gun violence reduction plan, although the Columbus effort is unrelated.

This particular client was ultimately transported to a hospital of her choosing.

An officer asks social worker Kristen Moreland about an interaction between the mental health response team and a client.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU

Address Problems Without Arrests

A lot of police calls involve sending officers to deal with someone in a fragile mental state - and it can often end poorly. As part of a new partnership between Columbus Police and Franklin County’s 24-7 mental health crisis center Netcare, police and social workers respond together when they think someone could be the middle of a mental health crisis.

The program aims to increase how often a mental health professional can assist officers on the scene with a client suffering from mental health issues. Officials hope the effort will reduce the number of repeat calls by clients, and lead to fewer people experiencing mental health problems being taken to jail.

Before the mobile crisis response team was formed, police would take such calls alone. Sometimes, Netcare would call the Columbus Police for assistance if clients behaved aggressively.

Sergeant Matthew Harris runs the team, which became a permanent part of the Columbus Division of Police in August.

“Everybody sort of realized at some point that the number of calls that we get that contain words like bipolar, schizophrenic, off meds, depressed, suicidal, all this terminology that relates to mental health, we figured out quickly that we need to do something more," Harris says.

Columbus' mobile crisis response unit pairs five officers with five clinicians, who are funded by the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County. Next year's budget for MCR clinicians is $520,000. Officers were pulled from other assignments to form the team, so the budget for them isn’t yet known.

Officer Heinzman consoles a client who the mental health response team is transporting to a hospital.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU

On any mental health run, there’s about a 50% chance the team transports the person to the hospital for a mental health intake. When the team was in a trial phase last year, it conducted 864 transports, six of whom were taken to jail - a rate of less than 0.7%.

Compare that to patrol officers, who conducted 7,805 transports and took 785 people to jail - a rate of 10%. Those taken to hospitals can end up at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center, Riverside Methodist Hospital or Netcare, depending on their needs.

“I think one of the goals is take some of that weight off the patrol officers, who are really just generalists," Harris says. "Police officers do armed robberies, domestics, hold up alarms, theft reports, they have to sort of know how to do a lot of different things."

Impacts On Officers

Heinzman says serving on the team helped grow his empathy.

“When I started this a year ago, I am learning all kinds of stuff about mental health that I never knew before,” Heinzman says. “I would deal with folks, but I never knew the underlying causes of why they may act this way.”

Now he says he realizes the way an officer responds can potential de-escalate an encounter. Moreland says she's learned from working with officers in return.

“I can say from a social work standpoint that (officers) are put in positions every day that most people would never even imagine,” Moreland says.

When the team was in a trial phase in 2018, it responded to nearly 7,000 calls for service. They hope the team is one step toward Columbus' goal of more community-oriented policing.