Cops in Lakewood, Tacoma will work alongside mental health professionals

Pierce County’s two largest cities plan to start contracting with mental health professionals to work alongside police, hopeful that the partnership will reduce the number of mentally ill people flooding area hospitals and the county jail.

By next year, mental health professionals will accompany Tacoma and Lakewood police when officers respond to emergency calls involving people with mental illness. A mental health professional is someone with a masters degree and at least two years experience in the field.

The Tacoma City Council unanimously approved a $319,462 contract Tuesday with MultiCare Behavioral Health and Outreach Services. The two-year contract provides two mental health professionals to work with police.

Funding for the contract comes from the city’s one-tenth of one percent mental health chemical dependency sales tax and the Tacoma Police Department.

In Lakewood, the police department is in the final stages of contract negotiations with Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare to provide similar services. Assistant Police Chief Mike Zaro said he expects the contract to be ready by January and hopes to bring it to the City Council for approval at that time.

Zaro said police in Pierce County’s second-largest city are sometimes called to a scene where a person hasn’t committed a crime but where intervention is still needed.

Taking a potentially mentally ill person to the hospital or jail because there’s no other option is not a long-term solution, he said.

“We have two goals in mind. One is to reduce some of the calls for service and the burden on patrol resources for things that aren’t crimes,” Zaro said. “The second part is to get people the services they genuinely need.”

Recent News Tribune reports have shown how lengthy delays in court-ordered mental health treatment are causing dozens of patients to be parked in local hospital waiting rooms — a practice known as psychiatric boarding — or left sitting in jail cells without treatment.

Lakewood has proposed having one mental health professional available to police 40 hours a week. The professional would work during the hours when police most commonly respond to people with mental illness, Zaro said. The department is still determining when those hours are.

The city has just under $100,000 available to pay for the new service.

Unlike Tacoma, Lakewood does not have a mental health tax. It is using two federal grants totaling $84,000, plus $12,000 from the city’s human services fund.

The Pierce County Council this week considered going to the ballot next year with a countywide mental health tax, but voted unanimously not to.

Working with Lakewood police is nothing new for Greater Lakes, said Glenn Czerwinski, vice president of clinical operations for the nonprofit agency. Lakewood officers already respond to calls at Greater Lakes’ main building when clients get out of hand.

But Czerwinski said partnering with the police department in this way will be new, and it could help stem the tide of emergency patients who consume community resources over and over again.

“If we can get out ahead of that and help stabilize the client, that is going to be really great for everybody,” he said.

Part of Lakewood’s program would include following up with people the day after a police response to make sure they are connected to services, Czerwinski said.

Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said the city will use the mental health professional program to help in cases when a person needs treatment, not incarceration.

In an email, Cool gave a scenario in which an officer is called to deal with a mentally ill individual who refuses to leave a business. Currently, if the person has nowhere to go and doesn’t understand the situation, police would arrest him for trespassing. But Cool said the person might be better served by an evaluation from a mental health professional and placement in a treatment program.

“A lot of wasted court time, officer time and jail space when they should have been evaluated and placed, not booked,” she said.