New training aids officers on mental health crisis response calls in Prescott area
Homeless, elderly make up significant number of incidents in Prescott area
Sergeant Ben Scott with Prescott Police Department (PPD) was patrolling downtown Prescott with two other officers recently when they noticed a man talking to himself along the Greenways Trail System.
“We watched him for a minute and said ‘we probably should see if this guy is OK,’” Scott said.
They started a conversation with the man and quickly determined he was going through some degree of mental health distress.
“He was in crisis with the things that he was seeing and he was having a conversation with God,” Scott said. “There was something about a loss of his relative. It was like talking to two people.”
Two years ago, the officers wouldn’t have known what to do with the man, for there was no comprehensive training or directive for law enforcement in Yavapai County on how to resolve such situations. Instead, they likely would have made sure he wasn’t an immediate danger to himself or others and then recommended he seek some form of treatment before leaving him be.
But that is not how this contact transpired.
Two of the officers were trained in crisis intervention due to recent opportunities made available to officers in the county, so one of them calmly talked to the man while the other called West Yavapai Clinic. They found out the man had been in an appointment at the clinic, went for a walk and never came back.
They then called Terros Health, a mental health and substance abuse agency that provides mobile crisis response upon request from law enforcement during situations like this.
“[Terros] jumped in, spoke with him, and he agreed to go to the emergency room for a medical concern,” Scott said.
Scott estimates it took nearly an hour to accomplish all of this, but he and the officers were glad they could apply their training and get the man the help he needed.
“It’s taking a little bit more time, looking at it a little bit differently, and getting officers dialed in to recognizing certain things,” Scott said. “We aren’t going to compromise our safety, but once we get over that hump, we’re able to start taking advantage of the resources we now have in play.”
Similar tactics and resources are deployed during suicide threats and attempts — several of which the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) has responded to this month — said Det. Josh Brazell, team leader for YCSO’s crisis negotiation team.
“A lot of times when you’re dealing with a suicidal subject, they’re not thinking rationally,” Brazell said. “They really want somebody to talk to. It’s really about slowing things down, taking the time to listen to people, and seeing what we can do to get them help.”
One of the most important aspects of these negotiations, he said, is not to lie to the person going through the crisis.
“If they committed some felony crime that they have to go to jail for, we’re not going to tell them ‘if you come out, we won’t take you to jail,’” Brazell said. “Because if you ever end up dealing with these people again down the road, they’ll remember you lying to them last time, and you just made it that much harder for officers who respond to that scene.”
WHERE MENTAL HEALTH CRISES ARE MOST PREVALENT
Like Terros Health, Spectrum Health has been responding to mental health crises upon request from law enforcement in Yavapai County thanks to a Blue Cross Blue Shield Mobilized AZ Grant.
In the past year, most of its responses in the western half of the county have been in Prescott proper, said April Rhodes, Spectrum's chief executive officer.
“Where we see a lot of cases is in downtown Prescott where there will be kind of chronically homeless people,” Rhodes said.
Aside from the homeless population, about half of Sprectrum's calls in the western part of the county have been in response to elderly individuals needing immediate mental health assistance, which Rhodes said is surprising to her and her staff.
“It’s a larger number than we would have ever thought,” she said. “It’s not people covered by Medicaid. It’s more the aging population that doesn’t have resources, or doesn’t know how to access them, or maybe has a difficult time cognitively knowing what to do.”
Some of the more intense calls, she said, have been in outlying areas of their service area, such as Humboldt or Paulden.
“We haven’t had a lot of calls out there, but generally when we do, they’re a little more complex,” she said.
In 2018, there were about 1,000 referrals from Yavapai County law enforcement agencies to area treatment providers, according to the YCSO.
For that year, there were also about 1,000 fewer bookings into the Yavapai County jail based on prior year averages, the agency states.
Each time Spectrum or Terros helps someone avoid being arrested, Spectrum estimates a cost savings of about $3,600. That estimate is determined by taking the average cost of jailing someone for a day ($120) and multiplying it by the average length of stay in jail (30 days).
Similarly, when they help prevent someone from having to go to the emergency room because of behavior health symptoms, they estimate the cost savings to be about $2,000 per person.
Between February and April of this year, Spectrum has helped avoid the arrest of 28 people and helped prevent 31 people from being sent to the emergency room, for a total estimated cost savings of $410,800.
“It’s been really good,” Rhodes said about the results.