POLK COUNTY — Recent police logs tell of a woman screaming and running about the Walmart parking lot, later telling officers that’s just the way she deals with stress.
The day before, a woman threw pizza around her house in a fit of rage. A week later, another woman threatened to kill herself with injections of insulin. Meanwhile, a teenage boy erupted at his parents after being grounded.
All of them are what the police call an EDP (emotionally disturbed person).
“That’s a law-enforcement term,” said Doug Akin, the head of crisis programs for Polk County Behavioral Health Services. “I just call them people.”
And some people find themselves in emotional crises from time to time, Akin said. The crises are often dramatic enough to draw the attention of the police. Police are trained to confront the danger of a situation, but perhaps not the emotions that ignited it.
Polk County’s Mobile Crisis Response Team stands ready to help.
The team acts as a sort of emotional bomb squad. It pairs law enforcement officers with mental health professionals who can step in and diffuse potentially explosive situations.
Polk County provides two sets of partners. Salem Police Officer Mike Sommers works with therapist Ashley Berg, while Polk County Sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Lacombe works with therapist Keri Jaeger.
When a 911 call comes in, the team responds when someone needs emotional help. Berg said her first job on the scene is to quickly assess the situation, figure out exactly what is upsetting the person and how best to respond.
“I don’t go in looking for a crime,” she said. “I go in looking for any personal problems, any clinical issues. What would make Keri and me nervous isn’t what would make law enforcement nervous.”
Berg said she’s rarely encountered a situation she can’t handle.
“We can at least get them listening to us,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s just as simple as taking someone down to 7-Eleven to get them some smokes so they can chill out,” she added.
Akin said Jaeger and Berg practice a delicate art.
“You try to find that window or that carrot,” he said. “You have to build confidence very quickly, I can teach a llama how to handle crises, but I can’t teach empathy and compassion and the ability to stay calm in a crisis situation.”
It all boils down to talking and listening, he added, making sure no one in the situation ever feels threatened or cornered.
“You literally just talk to them and talk to them and talk to them,” he said. “Time freezes.”
Sometimes the clinician is the best person to do the talking, Akin said. Other times, it’s the officer,
“Veterans tend to react better to law enforcement because they relate to the badge or the uniform or the rank,” he said.
The team was created three years ago as a collaboration between Polk County Behavioral Health Services and the sheriff’s office. The Salem Police Department and Marion County had a similar team.
“We created our own using that model,” said Lt. Dustin Newman, patrol commander at the sheriff’s office.
The results have been impressive, Newman said.
“The way we implement ours is a little different from Marion County,” he said. “I think ours works pretty stinking well, and people reach out to find out what ours is doing.”
Akin said the team might have made a difference 25 years ago the night Dallas police shot and killed Archie Murray in the Safeway parking lot. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say, he said. Nonetheless, Akin said, Murray’s fate embodies the kind of tragedy the team hopes to prevent.
Murray said some awfully strange things as he walked the streets of Dallas in the early ‘90s, but many locals were inclined to write them off with bemusement. True, he was mentally ill, but he seemed harmless enough. He was seen more as a character than a threat.
He has not entirely harmless. Murray, 29, had a police record that included fourth-degree assault and third-degree theft. He was released from jail Nov. 7, 1995. Three days later, everything went seriously wrong.
For whatever reason, Murray had an emotional breakdown in the Safeway parking lot and happened to have a knife with him at the time. The situation escalated to the point where police shot him in what was later ruled as a justifiable use of deadly force.
Akin grew up in Dallas. He knew Murray. However, Akin was not yet working in crisis services. If he had been, if there had been a mobile crisis response team in place, team members would likely have responded to the parking lot.
If the team was otherwise occupied, Akin said he would have gone to the parking lot himself. He would there assess the situation and decide who worked particularly well with Murray. Hypothetically, Berg might be chosen as the primary person on the scene.
She might have been able to talk Murray off whatever emotional ledge he found himself on, Akin said. Then again, Murray’s life might still have ended that night in the parking lot. Berg said it still would have been helpful to have a therapist there.
If nothing else in such situations, she said, she can provide the human equivalent of a body camera. She can bear witness to what happened — what was done right, and how it all went wrong. She can say whether not police had a chance to de-escalate the situation, she added.
“If you put clinicians in cars with cops, you have a third party,” said Berg. “It keeps the parties a little more accountable.”
Jennifer Lief, the division manager of Polk County Behavioral Health Services, said the county’s team is unique.
“Mobile crisis does a lot more than crisis response,” she said.
Crisis service professionals provide 40-hour training for police officers and sheriff’s deputies. Professional speakers participate in the trainings as well as people who have survived emotional crises that involved the police.
Participants act through scenarios to learn how to turn down the emotional temperature of crisis calls.
“It’s really a neat training,” Lief said.
Berg said the team rubs off on the police. Officers often excitedly tell her when they have de-escalated a situation using techniques gleaned from the trainings such as using “eye statements,” she said.
Lief said another important aspect of the team is that members’ work doesn’t end when they leave the scene. They continue to help people cope with their difficulties, working with Akin and the entire gamut of crisis services available through the county.
Berg and Jaeger also don’t have to wait for 911 calls to come in.
“They have access to electronic health records,” Lief said. “They also have police reports from around the county. They can review those for mental health issues. They pick up cases so they don’t need to rise to the level of law enforcement.”
They also help more than people who have underlying emotional issues.
Scott Spangler, 43, of Dallas, was shot and killed by police during a narcotics arrest at the Goodwill location on Edgewater Street in West Salem Sept. 18, 2019. Lief said team members responded to the shooting and followed up with store customers and staff who were traumatized by what happened.
This has been a particularly difficult year for people emotionally, Lief added. The county’s entire mental health staff was sent out of the office to work from home when the coronavirus pandemic struck in March.
“We didn’t miss too many beats being able to help our clients,” she said.
Then something strange happened.
“Our crisis calls almost stopped,” Lief said. “The numbers were way down. Then in late June or July, they picked up. We’ve had crises like you wouldn’t believe.”
In addition to the pandemic, recent months have seen a social upheaval as many people question the size and scope of law enforcement in the wake of events such as the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police May 25.
While some activists call for the complete abolition of police departments, more moderate voices suggest police are overburdened, that they respond to too many calls that would be better and less aggressively dealt with by social service and mental health professionals.
Newman at the sheriff’s office said he doesn’t think so. He would never suggest sending civilians into potentially dangerous situations alone, he said. “There’s a very specific reason to have a police officer on the team.”
However, he added, having mental health professionals on the scene has been extremely useful. “They get there and help law enforcement through the process to figure out how we can better help that person work through the crisis,” Newman said. “It doesn’t always have to be about law enforcement.
“When we’re dealing with big situations and dangerous situations, it’s nice to have a liaison with the mental health folks, to have them at the table so we have a better idea of what that person is going through,” he added.
“At first, we didn’t know how it was going to work, but it’s been very effective.”
The team has regular shifts from noon to 8 p.m. One team works Monday to Thursday. The other works Thursday to Sunday. However, Akin said the team really includes more than just four people. He often goes out on crisis calls himself after hours.
“It saves the taxpayers money,” he said. “I don’t have to pay the money for overtime and all that because I’m management.”
Calls can be a little scary. “You’re not 100 percent sure whether or not the person in the car has a gun,” Akin said. “Our crisis workers are in danger from time to time.”
Team members — even the civilians — wear bulletproof vests with the word “CRISIS” on them, Berg accessorizes with a pair of tactical-grade boots. “That’s more for my comfort,” she said.
Crisis workers must be hyper-vigilant all the time, Akin said.
“You might be dealing with someone who only seems very sad, but even in those situations, you can’t get complacent,” he said. “That scenario can pop off in a second if you’re not ready for it. If a person lunges for me, I have to get this way or that way while still being present. That scenario happens quite frequently.”
It’s not always the person having the emotional episode that presents the central problem, he added.
“A lot of the time, the client is perfectly fine,” he said. “All we have to do is listen. It’s the family members. They carry the emotional struggle.”
Staying cool is the key, Akin said.
“You have to have a thick skin. You’re going to be called every name in the book. You cannot judge. You can’t let your biases and judgments affect your behavior.”
Berg worked in emergency rooms and had her own clinical practice before joining the team. She loves the immediacy of the calls, she said. “People aren’t coming to your therapy office,” she added. “You’re coming into their living rooms. We have contact with every kind of human because it’s not per insurance, it’s per emergency.”
In some ways, said Berg, she is a natural-born crisis responder.
“I’ve always been attracted to working with crisis sorts of situations,” she said. “I’ve always liked that stuff. I always had this very intense personal passion for forensic psychology. As a kid, I probably watched ‘Silence of the Lambs’ a few too many times. As a I got older, I realized there was an academic path in the field.”
The team is perfect for her, Berg said. “When you blend the social sciences and forensic sciences, you always come up with some really cool stuff.”
More police agencies will eventually create mobile crisis response teams, Berg predicted.
“These type of units are few and far between, but I think they’re going to be become as standard as K-9 units,” she said. “It’s the only time I know of when a civilian with a police officer and the civilian can make recommendations about how the call turns out.”
Newman said he appreciates the team’s involvement. “If we can help people on the front end, we don’t have to deal with them later,” he said. “We’ve made a difference rather than putting them through the court system.”
Akin said his own reasons for dealing with crises in Polk County are personal.
“I choose to work where I work because I come from here,” he said. “I never want to work anywhere else. These are my people.”
He worries about his people and the crises they might be facing.
“I can think of a bunch of people off the top of my head who could be the Archie Murray of 2020.”