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New crisis team takes Richland County deputies out of mix on mental health calls

State - 2/24/2021

Feb. 24—Mental health is a personal issue for Leon Lott.

During a Wednesday news conference to announce his department's new crisis intervention team, the Richland County sheriff said he's had experience dealing with mental health issues.

Lott said his father struggled with mental illness his entire life, and it's something that the sheriff dealt with when he grew up.

But his father was not a criminal, Lott said.

And neither are the people in the midst of mental health problems that his deputies have had to respond to because there has not been anyone else to call for help.

"Being mentally ill does not mean that you are a criminal. It's not a crime to have a mental illness. Unfortunately, for too long it's been treated that way," Lott said.

Ideally, that won't be the case anymore in Richland County, with the emergence of the crisis intervention team.

Now the members of the emergency responder program are the officials who respond to a person dealing with a mental health crisis rather than a deputy in full uniform in a marked patrol vehicle. The sheriff said this takes deputies out of the response, while his department is still working to deescalate a situation and find a solution for the person suffering a mental health problem.

"For too long, we've been the ones who got the call. When you don't have anybody else to call, who do you call? Law enforcement," Lott said. "So we've been addressing a lot of mental health issues that are not crimes and we shouldn't even be there."

In 2020, Lott said his department responded to more than 2,700 calls that involved someone having a mental health crisis, and were not criminal incidents.

So the sheriff's department has teamed up with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health to create a new model of emergency response those situations. It's a process that's been more than a year in the making and involves someone from the sheriff's department who is trained in crisis intervention to be partnered with a licensed mental health professional who has a master's degree.

"Someone who knows a lot more than us and knows how to deal with someone that's in a mental health crisis, how to get them the help that they need," Lott said.

The process could begin when the initial call is fielded by dispatch, and that person will try to address the issues over the phone and send the proper team out, if needed, according to Lott.

The sheriff called the program innovative and said he's excited about it. His partner in the initiative is equally enthusiastic.

"This is a really exciting program. ... It's an opportunity for two different agencies to come together ... and really be very forward thinking about how we provide support to our community," said Allison Farrell, the S.C. Department of Mental Health's Director of Office of Emergency Services. "It provides some prevention so things don't escalate. We don't want people to end up in jails. We don't want people to end up emergency rooms — unless that's where they need to be."

The program also allows for a follow up from the team and allow them to continue providing support.

The crisis intervention team started work on Feb. 3, and has already responded to 64 calls, according to Lott.

The sheriff predicted this approach will be something adopted by law enforcement agencies across the U.S. in the next decade.

"We wanted to take us out of the equation. When I say us, someone wearing a uniform, but to still help out someone in a mental health crisis," Lott said. "Jail is not where they need to be, but unfortunately too often that's where they end up being. That doesn't address the problem."


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