Police Officers Team Up with Mental Health Pros

Market to Market | Clip
Sep 9, 2022 | 7 min

Iowa and other states are sending mental health professionals along with police officers responding to mental health crises.


[Police body cam video:] “This door is open.” “This door?” “Yeah, I’m just going to stick my head in. Sioux City Police. Sir? Hey, buddy. It’s the police department. Can we talk to you?”

A number of studies estimate up to 12 percent of calls to police, like this one in Sioux City, Iowa, are for mental health-related problems.

“Hey, buddy, can we talk to you for a second?” “Is it okay if we step in?”

Although these Sioux City police officers had some training to help people with suicidal thoughts, many around the nation have little to none.

“Can we do that? Hey, sir, my name is Andrew. Can we step in here and talk to you?” “Okay.” “Okay, what’s your name?” “He said okay.” “Hey what’s your name, partner?” [Video of man sitting in window.]

These calls can take officers off the street for hours at a time.

Nicole Skaar, Educational Psychology Associate Professor, University of Northern Iowa: “Police officers I’ve talked to have said, ‘You know, this is not our job. We would love to see more training for us and mental health providers …to help us intervene in those situations.’”

Some city, county and state governments – including Sioux City – are providing officers with additional training as well as adding mental health professionals to police response teams. In Iowa, every county is now required to have an on-call mental health crisis response team that must be able to arrive on-scene within 60 minutes.

Andrew Dutler, Police Officer, Sioux City Police Department: “I’ve seen things change rapidly. It’s a breath of fresh air to be able to show up to a call and have MCAT… a mental health professional there that’s willing to show up.”

The teams are often located in the county seat which can put those who live on the fringes of the county at the outer edge of the 60-minute time limit.

If the situation is deemed safe, the team member can stay behind while law enforcement officers move on to other calls.

Melissa Drey, crisis services coordinator, Plains Area Mental Health, Sac City: Our Sac County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols all of Sac County, has two officers. This is very similar in every single one of our counties…So if you take those officers out to, say, deal with that situation for four to five hours, it does take somebody off.”

Drey, who oversees the mental health team 75 miles east in rural Sac City, says the stigma related to mental health is beginning to fade, especially among younger generations.

Melissa Drey, crisis services coordinator, Plains Area Mental Health, Sac City: Having them understand about their mental health, about their feelings, their emotions and making it okay as a child will morph into adulthood.”

Some experts say even an hour can be too long, especially when it comes to children. The 2021 Iowa Youth Survey of 6th, 8th and 11th graders found a little more than 20 percent reported having suicidal thoughts in the previous 12 months - a 60 percent increase from five years earlier.

Nicole Skaar, Educational Psychology Associate Professor, University of Northern Iowa: Our rural people have the same incidence of mental health difficulties as our urban people. The issue that leads to higher suicidality rates in the rural areas is lack of access to services.”

Rural areas typically have fewer resources and mental health professionals within a reasonable driving distance.

All of the additional help has been viewed as a positive development, particularly in light of a nearly 20-year rise in suicide rates that has only seen a limited reversal in the past few years.

Nicky Eaton, crisis services director, Siouxland Mental Health Center, Sioux City: I was super excited from the standpoint of it’s not just a hospital situation, a hush-hush situation anymore. We are truly trying to help people be successful in their communities and be happy where they work, live and play, you know, instead of being locked up in a unit…I would also say that…it’s been really difficult, you know, to try to make all these pieces fit, especially in smaller, more rural area.”

Eaton, whose territory covers both urban and rural locations, says rural communities tend to be closely knit, with mental health support coming via churches, social groups or friends, but access to professional help – even if delivered by video conference – is key.

Nicky Eaton, crisis services director, Siouxland Mental Health Center, Sioux City: Some people are more nervous to actually walk into a mental health center and you know, ‘I don’t want to be seen’…and so being able to do that by telehealth kind of gives them that mask.”

In northwest Iowa’s Sac County, population 9,700, local authorities say mental health crisis teams have helped but there is still a shortage of beds for in-patient care.

Kenny McClure, Sac County Sheriff, Sac City, Iowa: “The state transitioned from the four or five mental health institutes they had across the state to privatization of the mental health care system. So now these hospitals are - I’m going to call it ‘cherry picking’ who they take for patients.”

McClure says those facing a mental health crisis may instead end up waiting in a rural hospital’s emergency room, most of which don’t have security guards. When hospital staff feel like they are in danger, they call the local sheriff or police, which, in turn, takes officers away from other calls.

Kenny McClure, Sac County Sheriff, Sac City, Iowa: “We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the bed availability, we don’t have the manpower. And in some places, we don’t even have the cell phone coverage to communicate…. You can’t put a mental health patient in jail… That’s not where they belong. These people need help. And I believe the system, for the most part, is a failure.”

In nearby Woodury County, home of Sioux City, population 82,000, the mobile crisis unit has saved officers an average of 30 minutes per mental health-related call.

Officer Dutler, who was a mental health counselor before becoming a police officer, and three others responded to this call where a man was sitting on the windowsill of his multi-story apartment, considering ending his life. The man told Dutler he was upset about a close friend who had killed himself the week before.

Video: [show man being pulled safely inside]

Andrew Dutler, police officer, Sioux City Police Department: “Every single human being on any given day is dealing with some level of mental health.

Video: “We have a group that will come talk to you and set you up with resources”

Andrew Dutler, police officer, Sioux City Police Department: And maybe it hasn’t elevated to a crisis for you at that point in time, but we’re all dealing with life’s little quirks and situations and so bringing that awareness and having the partnerships has brought us a long, long ways.”

Video: [mental health professional walks in:] Would you be okay if I talk with you instead? I’m going to sit here. Thanks, guys. Thanks for coming out… See you later.

If you are thinking about suicide or if you or someone you know is in emotional crisis, call or text 988 any time for confidential, free, crisis support.

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org