ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – In January, mental health counselors from Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health hit the road with Orange County deputies.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is the first and only law enforcement agency in Central Florida to place clinicians in-car with deputies and, since March, the two teams have been called out 390 times to active scenes.
Delaney Kirwin, a licensed behavioral health clinician at Devereux, is paired with Deputy Kimberly Burk, 10 hours a day four days a week.
Kirwin and Burk make up one of the two clinician-deputy teams known as the OCSO Behavior Response Unit responding to calls across Orange County.
Recently Kirwin and Burk were called to the lobby of their own building - Sheriff’s Office headquarters on John Young Parkway - for a woman threatening harm.
Kirwin recognized the woman was in mental health crisis and started a conversation with her. She let the woman talk and offered additional counseling.
Eventually the woman agreed to leave peacefully.
“I think what’s really great about this program to is that we have the opportunity to stay at these calls a long time and put in the extra time to listen to talk because there’s so many other calls deputies have to respond to,” Kirwin said.
The Kirwin-Burk team was also called to a group home where a young woman was threatening harm.
“The deputy there before us had already identified that one of her coping skills is playing basketball,” Kirwin said. “We were able to talk and we went out to the driveway and played basketball for a while just to keep her calm. It calmed her down and showed her that we’re here to help and meet her where she’s at.”
Sgt. Bruce Vail, charged with creating the Behavior Response Unit, said around 20% of the calls for service to OCSO are mental-health related.
“Ideally, we don’t want to arrest, we want to get the person help and not Baker Act [hospitalize someone against his or her will for his or her safety] them, it’s very traumatic, it’s very costly, there are a lot of negatives to Baker Act,” Vail said. “We’re spending more time de-escalating people. Spending more time with them so that we don’t have negative incidents, we don’t have to fight people, we don’t have to secure them forcefully or anything like that. We’d rather spend the time de-escalating, getting them to calm down and then go along with us much more willingly.”
The clinician-deputy team is not a primary response team, but rather secondary, waiting until a patrol deputy has secured the scene and made sure it’s safe for the clinician.
Burk said before, without a clinician on scene, there was not enough time to talk.
“It would take a lot of time and sometimes there’s not that time,” Burk said. “You pretty much would talk to the person and if you think they’re in crisis you Baker-Acted them or you left them there.”
Now, the clinician-deputy teams have the option to spend two or three hours with someone in crisis, if needed.
“Whatever it takes to get to that de-escalation point,” Kirwin said. “A point of what’s next and what can I help you with next.”
The teams also spend much of their day following-up on those with whom they or other deputies have come in contact - checking to make sure they are regularly taking their medication and continuing their counseling.
Since January, the teams have met with 864 people, follow-ups included.
Burk said deputies responding to calls never had time to follow up with those in crisis.
BRU teams don’t wear typical police uniforms to make them more approachable and less intimidating. Kirwin wears a blue polo with the word “COUNSELOR” on the back. Burk wears a green polo with khaki pants.
Orange County Sheriff John Mina wants to double the size of the Behavior Response Unit from two teams to four and wants to expand Crisis Intervention Training to all deputies.
Currently around a third of the 1,600 deputies on staff at the OCSO have received 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training.