For three years, the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office has zeroed in on ways to improve its response to people experiencing mental health crisis.
The effort has involved creating the area’s first Mental Health Unit, investing in technology to better assist vulnerable populations, and growing partnerships with behavioral health organizations and other law enforcement agencies.
“All of these things aim to prevent incarcerating mentally ill people,” said Sgt. Rob Hillabrand, who leads the Sheriff’s Office’s Mental Health Unit. “Sarpy County is making great strides to address mental illness, and that’s because we all recognize people in crisis don’t belong in jail.”
First point of contact
Law enforcement officers are often a mentally ill person’s first point of contact. That’s why Sarpy County has dedicated resources to helping officers best respond.
Today, about 20 percent of Sarpy County jail inmates have a serious mental illness, which can include schizophrenia, delusional disorder, bipolar affective disorder, major depression and OCD. But for nonviolent offenders, jail won’t address their underlying issues. Instead, it may exacerbate them.
The goal is to avoid booking a person in jail for a minor misdemeanor like disturbing the peace or taking the person to an emergency room where they could wait for hours to be seen.
The Mental Health Unit has been a significant start toward intercepting these cases. Unlike the traditional Sheriff’s Office uniforms, Hillabrand wears a “soft” uniform with the Sheriff’s Office badge. His cruiser has subdued markings, so that his presence in a neighborhood doesn’t draw the attention of neighbors or further provoke someone in crisis.
Hillabrand coordinates mental health-related trainings across the county. The Sheriff’s Office is fully trained in Mental Health First Aid, a day-long training that teaches participants how to recognize mental illness and how best to respond to a person who’s suffering from bipolar disorder, depression or otherwise in crisis.
“We want people to receive proper treatment, and as a county, we want to decriminalize mental illness,” said Sarpy County Sheriff Jeff Davis. “These initiatives, from training to creating a specialized unit, are a step toward meeting those goals.”
In addition, Hillabrand, along with Deputy County Attorney Kate Gatewood, have developed a mental health field guild for law enforcement officers. The pocket guide will serve as a quick reference with tips on how to deal with people experiencing suicidal thoughts, addiction, crisis, trauma and people with autism, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
It includes a list of generic and brand name medications and what they’re used to treat, and has information about Nebraska laws for adult and youth emergency protective custody, or EPC.
“This helps give law enforcement more understanding of what could be going on because, for example, there’s so many medications out there. I’ve dealt with people in crisis who know their medication, but to me, I don’t know what it does. This guide will quickly identify that – what a medication is used for and what it’s meant to do,” Hillabrand said.
“Knowledge and training are really important and powerful in these situations,” added Gatewood. “If you have an idea of what you should and shouldn’t do, then in our mind, when you’re in a high-stress situation, it’s part of your automatic response.”
About 500 guides will be printed and paid for with grant funds, and with support of Leadership Sarpy, of which Gatewood is a participant. They’ll be distributed in December.
Technology assisting with mental health
Technology, especially in the age of COVID-19, has allowed mental health care to continue. Using Bureau of Justice grant funds, the county purchased iPads to connect therapists to people in crisis, including inmates inside the Sarpy County Jail.
The iPads will be used by road patrol officers, too, who can request assistance anytime from Heartland Family Service’s ASAP (Assessment, Support and Prevention) program.
These virtual therapy sessions are made possible with the partnership of Heartland Family Service, which has funded HIPAA-compliant video conferencing software so clients and therapists can meet securely.
Hillabrand is also working with the county’s Information Systems Department to implement software called Open Lattice, which will help facilitate safer and more effective interactions between deputies and individuals.
The software will allow first responders to share data and improve communication among 911 dispatchers, law enforcement officers and jail staff. The software will assist 911 dispatchers deliver immediate, up-to-date information to officers when they encounter an individual. This kind of information sharing can help avoid negative consequences such as jail or use of force.
“These initiatives take investment, especially time, but we’re proud Sarpy County is leading the way and finding innovative ways to assist our vulnerable residents,” said County Board Chairman Don Kelly. “Incarceration isn’t always the right option – plus it’s incredibly costly – so anything we can do to find alternatives, while getting people the services and resources they need to succeed, is a good thing.”
This has been Part 2 in an ongoing series about Sarpy County’s Mental Health Services. Coming next: A look at the Mental Health Case Management program and Community Corrections.