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City police mental health program grows, increases partnerships

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Posted on: July 14, 2021

By Heather Wright

Across the nation, many critics of police departments recommend reducing police budgets and diverting city funds to social service, community service, behavioral health and alternative public safety programs, instead. 

Hyattsville police officer K. Cherry, who attended the Mental Health First Aid for First Responders class earlier this year, provides support to a young adult who called 911 for help in June. Officer Cherry was able to get the caller to a hospital for psychological support.
Courtesy of the Hyattsville City Police Department

In Hyattsville, a focus on police reform has led to increases in the police and public safety budget. For fiscal year 2022, the City of Hyattsville approved almost $135,000 for a new Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) mental health and wellness program, the cost of which will be divided between the police and the human resources department budgets, according to Adrienne Augustus, HCPD mental health programs manager. 

Augustus said that $50,000 of the $135,000 is for the mental health and wellness check-in program, which includes mandatory quarterly sessions with a licensed clinical psychologist for all Hyattsville police officers and dispatchers. During a Feb. 16 presentation to the city council, councilmember Daniel Peabody (Ward 4), who sponsored the check-in program, promoted it by saying, “Our officers and dispatchers deserve our investment in their mental wellness, as they do the intense work of providing safety to our community.” Check-in program costs and training and education expenses come out of the human resources department budget. 

Another $60,000 provides for officers’ overtime so they can attend quarterly full-day trainings while still providing for full patrol coverage. Overtime costs come out of the police budget.

One such training is the HCPD Mental Health and Wellness Day, which was held for the first time in April. The virtual session included presentations that were offered to the department for free by a number of nonprofits, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Prince George’s County and DC Safe, which supports survivors of domestic violence. 

According to Augustus, more than 70 people attended the program, including the entire Hyattsville police department and officers from Metro Transit Police and from the Brentwood, Carroll County, Upper Marlboro, New Carrollton, Glenarden and Amtrak police departments. 

A second HCPD Mental Health and Wellness Day is slated for late summer. 

And a mental health and wellness day for the Hyattsville community is scheduled for Oct. 2. This event will include food and entertainment, along with interactive activities, all centered around physical and mental well-being. 

The HCPD, in conjunction with other neighboring police departments, is applying for several federal grants to supplement and bolster the mental health program, including one submitted in partnership with the Brentwood Police Department that would fund the mental health and wellness check-in program for both agencies for two years. 

During an interview, acting HCPD Chief Scott Dunklee pointed out that collaborating on programming with nearby police departments is important because his department has mutual aid agreements with other police agencies. “We also want to make sure,” he said, “that if other officers come in to help, that they have the same level of training, the same ability to de-escalate a situation as our officers do.”   

The HCPD is also working towards having a mobile crisis team that would pair specially trained police officers with licensed mental health providers. Towards that goal, the Anne Arundel County Police Department provides classes, for free, to select Hyattsville officers so they can receive Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) certification. Augustus explained that her goal is to have at least two officers per squad who are CIT-certified and more prepared to respond to behavioral health crises. She noted that six to eight HCPD officers will receive their certification by the end of August. 

Some residents would prefer to see city funding support other mental health services, though. In his statement to voters in the April Hyattsville Life & Times, Chuck Perry, who was running for a Ward 3 seat on the Hyattsville City Council at the time, wrote, “I would like to see a leaner police department and the formation of a professional, full-time non-law enforcement department of licensed mental health professionals that would be specifically tasked to help the homeless and the mentally ill.” Perry told voters during a virtual candidate forum that he decided to run for office following the death of Leonard Shand, a Black man armed with two knives who appeared to have been suffering from a mental health crisis when he was shot by multiple police officers in Hyattsville in September 2019.

Overall, Hyattsville’s police and public safety budgeted expenditures increased from FY2020 to FY2022. Forecast total police and public safety expenditures, according to City of Hyattsville annual budget ordinances, went from $10.2 million (or 33.7% of the $30.2 million total expenditures) in FY2020 to $11.1 million (or 34.7% of $31.9 million) in FY2021 to $12.7 million (37.5% of  $33.8 million) in FY2022

Asked about Hyattsville’s approach of increasing funding to benefit the police department, including funding the HCPD mental health initiative, Augustus responded, “The term ‘defund’ — I feel like a lot of people have moved away from that, and it’s more about police reform, and so I think people are better able to embrace the concept of ‘reform’ because we need our officers.” In his response, Dunklee pointed to numerous large development projects in Hyattsville that could add 6,000 new residents within a few years, which would require ramping up staffing and the efforts of all the city departments, including police and public safety, in order to maintain quality services. 

“We’re trying to be careful [with the mental health initiative]. We want to do best practices, but also think outside the box,” said Dunklee. “We can’t just sit around and wait for someone to come down with an edict from the county, or somebody to spoon feed us something. We want to be out front, just like I think we have been for years.”

“These officers already do a phenomenal job supporting people in behavioral health crises every day. I hear the stories; I hear how they speak about people in crisis with such respect and such empathy,” Augustus emphasized in an interview. “It’s been very clear to me that a lot of the officers bring, I think, the first most important element to the table, which is empathy, and that’s something that’s hard to teach.” 

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