VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said too many calls involving someone suffering from a mental health crisis that end in tragedy could have been avoided.
“Here’s a way I’d like to look at it: A mother calls us because her son or daughter is in mental crisis,” Chitwood said. “And they end up dead. Mom didn’t call us to kill them. Mom called us to help.”
Chitwood believes adding mental health counseling to law enforcement response will save lives, time and money.
“You’re Baker-Acting (hospitalizing someone for their own safety) the same person three, four or five times,” Chitwood said. “That’s an expensive proposition and anything can go wrong. But having a mental health professional on the line that can track this, well maybe a Baker Act isn’t necessary.”
Chitwood is collaborating with SMA Behavioral Healthcare’s Crisis Response Team to include on-demand counseling.
Mellonese Mayfield is the director of the Crisis Response Team at SMA.
“People are needing more help at this time in our community because they’re facing things such as loneliness, isolation, uncertainty,” Mayfield said. “We have more knowledge, we have a better understanding of how to interact with a person struggling with some sort of mental health issue.”
Mayfield is meeting with deputies in small groups to remind them that SMA counselors are on-call and available 24 hours a day to guide deputies responding to mental health crisis calls.
“We can help make a determination on what level of care this person should be, how to appropriately handle this person,” Mayfield said. “So this is very useful to have someone like a mental health counselor.”
Chitwood said Florida Power & Light donated $10,000 for the sheriff’s office to purchase iPads that will connect counselors with deputies on scene.
“So when we go out on these calls, we can call the licensed psychologist online and get the iPad to the family of the person and let them interact with mental health professional through the iPad,” Chitwood said.
All 911 dispatchers are getting 80 hours of mental health crisis training to better screen calls and better direct deputies' response.
“It might not need a police response,” Chitwood said. “An example is a 10-year-old kid that’s acting out that has some mental health issues and is breaking plates in the house and doesn’t want to do his homework,” Chitwood said. “Should we be sending deputies to that call? Or should a mental health provider be working closely with that family?”
And Chitwood is partnering with SMA to add a counselor at the Sheriff’s Office Deltona Substation, the busiest in the county, to respond in-person with deputies going to a crisis call.
“So they’re not flying blind,” Chitwood said. “They know we’ve been to this house three or four times before, here’s what the issue is, and they know the exact resources that they can use to deescalate and get through the crisis.”
Chitwood said having a mental health counselor riding along with deputies is “absolutely priceless.”
“Because we get trained, we go through 80 hours of critical incident training, but we don’t do it every day,” Chitwood said. “We’re like a M.A.S.H. unit, we pack it up and move on to the next crime for the next issue. To have a mental health professional and tie that in with the deputies you, you can’t put a price on that.”
“Those who are suffering from mental health or substance related issues, it helps to allow the officer to be freed up, because our counselors have more time and flexibility to work with that person, so that allows the officer to leave the scene and go on to the next call,” Mayfield said.
Chitwood said placing the counselor at the Deltona substation is a one-year pilot program that may continue and expand to other substations in the county depending on cost and results.
“Everybody’s focusing on the end result, let’s focus on what’s going on before the end result,” Chitwood said. “And with these actions we believe it’ll stop, in most cases, a deadly confrontation with law enforcement.”