MOUNT VERNON — In September, a new team from the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office hit the streets.
It’s not a group with fancy new technology or gadgets, but instead is designed to address the basics — and change the way policing is done, one person at a time.
“Treatment, diversion and reduced incarceration time are primary goals of this program,” Skagit County Sheriff Don McDermott said.
In partnership with Compass Health, the Sheriff’s Office formed its Integrated Model of Police and Crisis Teams (IMPACT), which partners deputies and mental health workers to respond to calls together in order to help people get the services they need, not just jail time.
“I really feel like lives change,” said Marla Johns, program manager with Compass Health.
Conversations about such a program began in January, when Sheriff’s Office detective Anne Weed, who also has experience as a mental health professional, approached Johns to find ways to implement such a program in Skagit County.
“It is about getting those in need the help as safely as possible with the goal of connecting them to available resources,” McDermott said. “Too often, subjects with behavioral health issues are taken into custody and housed in a correctional environment that only compounds their problems and creates a greater burden on the criminal justice system.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis that sparked nationwide calls for police reform, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office already recognized the need to serve its community differently, Johns said.
“I just feel like over the years we’ve really failed people with mental health and substance abuse issues,” said Sheriff’s Office Chief of Field Services Chris Baldwin.
In the past, when deputies responded to a person in crisis, they have given out a phone number and encouraged the person to get connected with services — something less than a third of them would do, Johns said.
“As a patrol deputy, I responded to numerous calls of people having a mental health crisis and I often came away wishing I could have done more to truly help,” McDermott said.
By having a deputy and a mental health professional respond together, the goal is to get people the help they need, whether they’re struggling with long-term issues or experiencing a short-term crisis, Weed said.
Some people need to go to the hospital. Others — like a person in a panic over receiving their first ticket — just need someone to talk to.
“We’re giving them the proper resource,” Weed said.
Since it was launched in September, IMPACT has responded to an average of 119 calls per month, Johns said. Eighty-six percent of the time, the teams have been able to get the person to engage in support services they otherwise would not have, she said.
Seven percent of the time, the teams have been able to keep a person from having to be taken to a hospital, Weed said.
In 2% of cases, incarceration has been avoided, Johns said.
While that may not seem like much, the effect it has — on both those in crisis and the deputies and mental health professionals — has been great, she said.
“It totally has shifted to: Are we going to go in and be enforcers or are we going to go in and be problem solvers?” Johns said. “We crisis workers are always going to need law enforcement. Law enforcement is always going to deal with people in crisis. If those two things are always going to be true, then this is what should happen.”
Another effect of the program has been that situations have been more easily de-escalated and deputies have had to resort to force less often, Baldwin said.
“It’s building that trust so we can engage better,” he said.
In some cases — for example a persistent 911 caller — the teams have been able to determine if the person had other issues that needed to be addressed and were able to do so, freeing up emergency lines and deputy time, Weed said.
“It gives us time,” she said. “Which we need desperately.”
It’s not just the people in crisis and the professionals on the street that are benefiting from the new teams, Baldwin said.
In some instances, family members — many reluctantly, out of fear for their loved ones — are the ones who have to make the call to 911, bringing about the visit from law enforcement, Baldwin said.
With the IMPACT response, families can now feel as if their loved ones’ needs will be properly addressed, rather than just seeing them taken into custody and put into the criminal justice system, he said.
“It gives them hope,” Baldwin said.
In combination with Skagit County’s new Community Court, Baldwin said he thinks IMPACT will be able to make a big difference.
“It’s just a great program,” he said. “It makes everyone better.”
Currently, the teams are on duty a combined 10 hours per day, seven days a week, Baldwin said.
In its recent budget, the Skagit County Board of Commissioners approved an additional $238,000 expenditure for the Sheriff’s Office to add two deputies to IMPACT, expanding the teams’ reach in the county.
“I definitely felt it was very important to spend that money for those additional officers,” Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen said after learning about some of the teams’ early successes.
While the official number of members on the team will still remain small, Weed said the work the deputies on the teams are doing is creating a culture change in the whole department, with more deputies trying to find ways to utilize the team.
“Officers are now paying so much attention,” she said. “They’re now able to say ‘I think there’s a mental health component going on.’ They’re paying attention and they have a solution.”