The safety forces of Frederick County have recently undertaken significant changes in the way they will handle calls for help when people are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
These changes hold the promise of protecting lives — both of the police and citizens — and getting the right kind of help to people in extreme need.
When a mentally ill person starts behaving erratically — perhaps waving a gun, disrupting a neighborhood, or threatening to harm their family — the first call in the past has gone to the police who show up to restore peace. The safety of the mentally ill person has not always been the priority.
These new reforms represent a major shift in approach, perhaps the most important change to policing in a generation.
In March, Frederick County and the Sheriff’s Office announced the creation of a Mobile Crisis Services team composed of social workers, counselors and other specialists in order to help people experiencing mental health, substance abuse, homelessness or other issues.
If any county law enforcement officers, whether deputy sheriffs or the local police, are confronted with a mental health crisis, they are able to call on this crisis team, rather than having to deal with the emergency alone.
This month, the Frederick City Police Department announced it is creating its own crisis team of a police officer, a paramedic and a mental health professional that could be dispatched as a group.
The team, in plain clothes and traveling in an unmarked “crisis car,” will respond to mental health emergencies, rather than sending a patrol car.
Finally, the city police department is joining a group to develop a Frederick Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
The police department, the county prosecutor’s office, the county health department and other agencies hope to divert minor criminal cases away from the legal system and toward helping defendants get help for mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness and other issues.
These are huge steps for our community in refocusing the work of police officers in ways that will make their jobs safer for them, and will lessen the likelihood that interactions with mentally ill people will result in violence or tragedy.
We as a society demand so much from our police officers — sometimes just too much. Dealing with a person going through a mental health crisis takes specialized training.
Frederick Police Chief Jason Lando told News-Post reporter Ryan Marshall that many departments across the country are recognizing that some calls are better handled by mental health workers than police officers, but not many programs pair law enforcement, mental health and emergency services.
The city has begun a six-month pilot program, which will run Monday through Friday in the afternoons through the end of the year. If it is successful, the hope is to make it a full-time program.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program is an attempt to extend a less-confrontational approach to people facing a range of personal problems in addition to mental illness.
Chief Lando said the LEAD program is not a free pass to commit crimes but a way to address the root problems that drive the illegal behavior. If someone does not fully participate in the program once they have been accepted into it, they would face consequences.
“It’s almost like pressing pause on the criminal part of the case,” Lando told our reporter.
County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith said that he is hopeful the program will be effective.
“We strongly believe that it is a method to fight crime,” he said. “Our dockets are filled with good people who made bad decisions.”
We are pleased to see these innovative approaches to policing and crime fighting being tried here. If they work, it will make Frederick County a safer, better community.