City, police officials unveil Detroit mental health initiative

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some city police officers responding to runs that may involve the mentally ill soon will be accompanied by behavioral health specialists, as part of an initiative rolled out Monday which aims to address what Detroit's top cop describes as one of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement.

During a press conference at Public Safety Headquarters, Mayor Mike Duggan, Chief James Craig and Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network chairman Bernard Parker announced the "Mental Health Co-Response Partnership." 

"Anyone who has been in uniform knows the challenge the mentally ill pose to police officers," Duggan said.

Craig, who conceived of the program, said it's long overdue.

"This is something I've been talking about since I got here," Craig said. "I was exposed to this in Portland (Maine), Cincinnati — every place I've been was broken."

As of Dec. 13, Craig said DPD has responded to about 7,300 calls this year from people suspected of having mental illnesses.

"That comes down to roughly 20 calls per day," he said. "I believe this collaborative relationship will allow us to not only have more time to deal with other issues, but also to save lives proactively."

Money for the initiative will come out of the DPD budget, along with $800,000 from the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network. Tricia Stein, who will take over as Duggan's chief of staff in January, said additional money will come from the city's housing department.

The initiative will focus on three areas, Duggan said: responding to runs that may involve the mentally ill; dealing with the thousands of 911 calls made by people with mental illness and helping get services to the homeless.

Duggan said the police department rolled out a trial run of the program last year in the 3rd Precinct, which covers downtown.

"Starting in the fall, DPD has had a response team of a police officer and a behavioral health specialist responding to cases," Duggan said. "It's been so successful, we're putting a second team in the 9th Precinct."

In the second component of the program, Duggan said in January, behavioral health specialists will work in the police department's Communications Center to field the thousands of incoming calls from people with mental illness.

"They are inundated with 911 calls," Duggan said. "One individual called 4,000 times, and a handful have called 16,000 times (collectively). Now, there will be 2 full-time behavioral health specialists imbedded in the Communications Center to handle those calls."

The program's third component will focus on getting aid to the city's homeless.

"Nationally, about 30% of the homeless have a documented mental health condition," Duggan said. "When a call comes in that someone is behaving erratically, a police officer shows up, but what are they supposed to do? They can't lock them up; the (Detroit Detention Center) isn't equipped to deal with these individuals, and in many cases they refuse to go to a shelter.

"Now we’ll have an integrated team with police officers, behavioral specialists, and someone from our Housing Department to respond," Duggan said. "We're giving the police the kind of tools they need to handle these tough situations."

Stein said the program will roll out in January in the northwest quadrant of the city. In the trial program downtown, she said officers accompanied by behavioral health specialists responded to about 20 crisis runs per day, which she expects to continue.

"They also will proactively respond to hot spot locations, where there might be individuals suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues," she said. "Also, they'll follow up with familiar faces; these are individuals who police, EMS and (mental health workers) are familiar with. They'll proactively check with these individuals, and connect them to support services."

City Councilman and former Detroit cop Roy McAllister said the initiative is sorely needed.

"We’ve heard so much this year about defunding the police, and diverting money from the police to other services," he said. "We've had long talks about this, and it's not about defunding the police, but putting measures in place to assist the police. I think this partnership will achieve this. Incarceration is not the answer to dealing with the mentally ill."

Midtown resident Bernice Smith praised the program, but said she'd like to see even more services available to the mentally ill.

"They closed down the mental health facility (the Lafayette Clinic in 1992) under (former Gov. John Engler)," said Smith, 88. "Open up that building again and help these people with mental illnesses. Now, we have nowhere to take them.

"What DPD is doing sounds like a good program, but I wish they'd give them a place where they can stay and get treatment," she said. "They really need the help."

Duggan said he regularly drives through the city to see what issues need addressing, and during one pass-through, he said he encountered a woman whose behavior illustrated the need for more mental health services.

"One Saturday last fall, I was driving around and there was a woman on a main street, totally naked and giving herself a sponge bath," the mayor said. "The chief was out of town, so I called (deputy chief) Todd Bettison. A police car pulled up, the lady jumped in and said, 'thank you, I need to go to the Crisis Center (at Detroit Receiving Hospital).'

"When the mentally ill turn to the police for a response, the system is broken," Duggan said.

Recent incidents involving people with mental illness include:

  • Michael Moza of southwest Detroit, who was killed in a November shootout with Detroit police officers after leading them on a high-speed chase across the city. Family members said Moza had begged a doctor to give him mental health treatment before the incident. "This is yet another example of the broken mental health system," Craig said at a press conference the day after the incident. "When is this going to stop?"
  • In October, police fatally shot a 42-year-old man whom Craig said was suffering from mental illness, after the man held his girlfriend hostage inside a house on Detroit's east side. The standoff lasted several hours before a police sniper shot the man, who later died in a hospital.
  • Darrien Walker, 28, was killed by police in July, after he reportedly chased officers with a sword and dagger. A few weeks earlier, Walker was arrested as a barricaded gunman and sent to a hospital for mental health treatment — only to be released the next day, police said. 
Detroit police recovered this sword from the scene where an officer fatally shot a man who reportedly suffered from mental illness in July 2020.

Craig said the issue is personal with him, since his best friend, Los Angeles SWAT officer Randy Simmons, was killed in 2008 by a mentally ill man.

"This is something that's constantly stayed with me," he said. "I believe this partnership is the solution."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN