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'A very hard line to walk' -- Decatur mental health officer advocates for police, mentally ill

Decatur Daily - 2/10/2024

Feb. 10—Decatur Police Department's mental health liaison is preparing to take on additional duties as the city's community mental health officer in March.

Kathryn Anderson was hired by the department after former police Chief Nate Allen created the mental health liaison position a little over two years ago to help his officers better respond to troubled individuals.

Community mental health officers, on the other hand, are empowered by Alabama law to divert an individual in custody to a mental health facility, rather than jail, if that individual is suspected of being mentally ill and a threat to themselves or others. Morgan County's mental health officer Jerry Wilhoite currently performs those duties for the city. Anderson will maintain her role as the Police Department's mental health liaison when she takes over Wilhoite's duties for the city in March.

"The line that I walk is being an advocate for police and being an advocate for the mentally ill, and that's a very hard line to walk," Anderson said. "I want to bring a bigger conversation about mental health reform to Decatur."

Decatur police are responding to people in mental health crises ever more frequently, according to Anderson. In her liaison role, she is a crisis intervention team (CIT) co-responder and accompanies officers on calls that require her expertise. Every few months, she said she also rides along with night shift patrol officers for a week.

In one example, Anderson said she was called to respond to an individual having a mental health crisis outside of Jack's on U.S. 31 last week.

"He was explaining to people that he was God and Lucifer," she said. "The rambling stuff is what triggered the police wanting me, because that's a telltale sign of psychosis: delusions of grandeur."

The man was also holding a hammer. Anderson, who did part of her graduate schoolwork at Limestone Correctional and worked with the Wellstone mobile crisis team in Cullman, said she's no stranger to dangerous situations.

"I've been stabbed twice. I've been spit on; I've had bodily fluids thrown at me," she said. "But this is where my passion is. I understand that someone in a mental health crisis is acting out with those behaviors. When they're healthy, they wouldn't be doing that."

Anderson doesn't wear a police uniform or a bulletproof vest. Her skillset and education allow her to navigate sensitive situations and ask the right questions to then make "safe and right" decisions for individuals in crisis. Her on-scene expertise also helps educate family members of troubled individuals and de-escalate potentially violent situations.

Sometimes, de-escalation for Anderson means removing herself from the situation. In another example, she accompanied police to respond to a daughter's call regarding her father's erratic behavior.

"We get in there and I'm doing my thing," she said. "Something I said either triggered (the father) or made him think that I was a therapist, and he threatened to slit my throat.

"At that point, I'm not safe. When my safety or presence is escalating a situation, then I step back, and the officers are able to do what they need to do for safety."

Officers also routinely notify Anderson of struggling individuals they've noticed while responding to calls and ask her to follow up.

"I do follow up," she said. "I make phone calls or ask one of the officers to meet me to do a follow-up to make sure they're being connected to resources in the community and hopefully avoiding future police contact for a similar situation."

Police Chief Todd Pinion said Anderson has helped his officers respond to mentally ill individuals more effectively.

"Under her guidance, individuals are able to be connected to resources and behavioral health services that are beneficial and better equipped to help them," he said. "She has a true servant's heart and a passion for creating positive change at the intersection of mental health and law enforcement." — Training

Anderson became qualified to train others in CIT tactics after she completed coursework in Opelika last fall at the invitation of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Alabama. Four Decatur officers have been CIT trained since then. By the end of the year, Anderson said she wants to have at least one CIT-certified officer per patrol shift, if not two. She also offers the training to other first responders, such as firefighters and emergency room staff, who may come into contact with mental illness.

Last week, at NAMI's invitation, Anderson attended additional training in Birmingham focused on mapping out where mentally ill individuals enter the system and advancing community-based solutions. She said she met with police command staff this week to discuss the training.

"If an officer doesn't have a different ability than to either send someone to jail or the emergency room, then no matter how much they de-escalate, they're really not helping the situation. That's where this training comes in; it's a sequential intercept map," said NAMI's statewide CIT administrative coordinator John Hollingsworth.

"What this training does is it trains individuals to be facilitators, to go into a community and bring all the stakeholders together, where they understand the landscape and can get on common ground."

Hollingsworth retired from the Huntsville Police Department in 2021 after he helped develop its mental health officer program. Since then, he's worked with NAMI to try and develop "CIT champions" across the state. He said Anderson is one of those champions.

CIT training for officers can help them better understand behaviors that may be caused by not only mental illness, but also intellectual disability, drug addiction, or traumatic brain injury, according to Hollingsworth.

"If it's seen that the behavior is caused by the disorder, then it just makes sense that if you get these people into treatment, these behaviors will no longer happen," he said. "If you choose to do a criminal behavior, just like anybody else, you can still go to jail. It's just that some people aren't choosing to, it's their disorder that's causing it."

Anderson said police officers are often the first authority figures to respond to people experiencing mental health crises.

"This mental health crisis is not a police problem to fix," she said. "It's all the other nets that have broken. The breaking down of the family, the breaking down of access to mental health treatment, etc. Officers do not deserve things that they're blamed for when the Department of Mental Health and the hospital and mental health providers should be able to do more."

Judging by police responses to mental health crises over the last 10 years that resulted in fatalities, Hollingsworth said these scenarios typically follow a similar pattern: Individuals in crisis are visited by police multiple times and, without access to treatment, the visits can culminate in violence.

"That's where this training has been helping out," he said. "It's really not only helping the individuals who are suffering in crisis, but also reducing the trauma to their family because there's no physical encounter with police. It also reduces the trauma and increases the safety for the officers."

david.gambino@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2438. @DD_DavidGambino

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