Federal grants propel HCPD mental health initiatives: Mobile crisis team will support three municipalities
By Heather Wright
One third of those arrested in Prince George’s County are suffering from mental illness at the time of arrest, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks told WTOP news in 2020.
Nationwide, more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. As of Dec. 9, Maryland had recorded three suicides among officers in 2021.
The Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD), in partnership with the City of Mount Rainier and the Town of Brentwood, recently secured two federal grants, totalling almost $350,000, to address issues that may lead to these tragic outcomes. One grant will support police response to mental health concerns in the community and fund a crisis intervention team; the other will support officers’ and HCPD staff members’ mental health and wellbeing by expanding the police department’s mental wellness check-in program.
Mental health clinicians will respond with police
Hyattsville was one of four Maryland municipalities to receive a federal community policing award this year. The $230,000 grant will fund the city’s new Joint Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) Mobile Crisis Program, including the hiring of mental health clinicians, one full-time and one part-time, who will respond, along with specially trained police officers, to behavioral health emergencies in the community.
HCPD Mental Health Program Manager Adrienne Augustus acknowledged that this funding will not be sufficient to fully address the city’s needs. “We know that this grant funding is just a drop in the bucket. … But the point is we’re getting started,” she said.
“We’re not just taking law enforcement to the community but are meeting people where they are with services,” HCPD Chief Jarod Towers noted. “If we could stand up a co-responder model, it’d … be a role model for law enforcement throughout Prince George’s County.”
Mount Rainier Police Chief Linwood Alston said their department has recently hired a social services coordinator, and this has given him a taste of how an effective co-responder program could work. He recounted how a senior citizen had called for Mount Rainier police services 50 times in three months; Alston eventually went out on a call to meet with her. “She was seeing spirits in her apartment, and I told her, face to face, ‘I’m going to get you help,’” he recalled. Alston initiated an adult protective services case for the woman, and when Social Services Coordinator Silvia Diaz joined the department, she followed up with the senior. “She’s no longer in our city, but she’s in a place where she can get help now,” Alston noted.
According to Augustus, both grants have a six-month ramp-up phase to allow agencies to establish their programs. This lead time will allow the police departments time to hire clinicians and contract with a local crisis support organization for oversight and supervision.
Augustus said she’s seeking additional funding for the joint crisis team and hopes to have sufficient staffing, down the road, to ensure that two clinicians would always be available. In the meantime, the department will work to ensure adequate staffing during periods when the most behavioral health crisis calls come in.
Because the county system currently used by the three municipalities doesn’t have a uniform way to track behavioral health crises, the Hyattsville department is creating and piloting a program to identify these calls, she said.
Mental health services for officers will expand
The Hyattsville City Council budgeted $50,000 for an HCPD mental wellness check-in pilot program, a proposal sponsored by Councilmember Daniel Peabody (Ward 4), for fiscal year 2022. The program requires all HCPD officers and dispatchers to meet quarterly in 50-minute, one-on-one virtual sessions with licensed psychologists who have experience working with first responders.
Hyattsville was the only Maryland municipality to receive a federal law enforcement mental health and wellness award in 2021. This $118,800 grant will extend the pilot program to two years and expand it. Brentwood police officers and dispatchers and all current HCPD staff will be eligible for services, including at least monthly therapy sessions, if requested. Interdynamics, Inc., a Maryland firm with expertise in providing mental health services to first responders, is providing these services, which started on Dec. 6.
Towers was the first check-in session recipient on that date, and he hopes the mandatory quarterly sessions will eliminate any stigma around asking for help. “I know that they dedicate their lives to serve their community, and we need to ensure that our officers can cope with all these experiences they have to live through,” he noted. “If we can’t take care of our own, how can we take care of the community?” Towers also hopes that by participating in sessions with clinicians, officers in the program will be better able to relate to people in crisis.
Brentwood Police Chief Bob Althoff said, “We see a lot of things in our travels, or in our duties, that would make a lot of people cringe. When I first started, 40 years ago, we didn’t have [any] of this. Either you sucked it up, or you were a coward.”