Grosse Pointes public safety departments train to better respond to mental health crises

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 22, 2021

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GROSSE POINTES — Not every call for service involves a crime, fire or medical emergency.

All too often, public safety officers find themselves dealing with someone who isn’t committing a crime but might be causing a disruption because of a mental health issue. Until recently, officers in the Grosse Pointes usually would take that person to a local hospital for evaluation, but hospitals aren’t designed for long-term psychological care.

Now, however, officers are not only better trained to evaluate and deal with these situations, but they also have more tools at their disposal to help people, thanks to the One Mind Campaign. Grosse Pointe Shores Public Safety Director Ken Werenski said the five Grosse Pointes recently signed a contract with the campaign — which was devised by the International Association of Chiefs of Police — committing them to training all officers and dispatchers in mental health awareness and ongoing training.

The idea is that those in public safety can identify individuals suffering from a mental health crisis and get them the professional care they need, instead of locking them up temporarily in a jail cell or taking them to a hospital emergency room.

Werenski said the program is designed “so we’re all aware of how to handle these situations.”

“The biggest value I saw were how many resources were available,” Werenski said.

These include multiple mental health facilities in metro Detroit that are open to accept and treat patients after normal business hours, which is when he said police get the most calls for service about people who may be acting in troublesome ways. Werenski said these types of facilities can properly regulate patients’ mental health medications or get them back on medication, as well as provide appropriate therapy and support.

The National Coalition for the Homeless says that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 20% to 25% of the homeless population in America have some type of severe mental illness, for example. Some of those suffering from mental illness self-medicate with alcohol or narcotics, which can lead to erratic or dangerous behavior.

Besides those with mental health conditions, Werenski said the One Mind Campaign teaches law enforcement to recognize members of the autistic community to improve interactions between them.

Besides the training that all members of the public safety departments went through, some officers with each of the five departments also underwent additional training to become members of the newly formed Crisis Intervention Team. Werenski said at least 15 officers volunteered for the team and training, so that there will always be at least one officer among the cities on shift at any time to respond to a mental health emergency in any of the cities through the mutual aid pact.

Shores public safety officer Zef Bojaj, who has been with the department for about five years, was among those who offered to serve on the Crisis Intervention Team. He remembers past incidents in which officers had little option but to take someone suffering from a mental breakdown to the hospital.

“But that doesn’t help them out,” Bojaj said. “They need more specialized care.”

He said he and his fellow officers now know how to better handle someone who has a mental illness, calling the training “very eye-opening.” Werenski echoed that.

“Now we have more tools in our toolbox,” Werenski said.

Werenski said only a small percentage of police and public safety departments in Michigan have signed the One Mind Campaign pledge.

“I’m really proud of our guys for stepping up,” Werenski said.

“Only big (police and public safety) departments have this right now,” Werenski continued.

Shores Mayor Ted Kedzierski acknowledged that many of those in the criminal justice system have mental health problems because “the communities just don’t know how to deal with it.” He and other Shores leaders were glad to see the Pointes taking a proactive approach to this issue.

This initiative has been some time in the making. Werenski said officers started the training around March. Bojaj said officers from the Pointes graduated from the Crisis Intervention Team training program Nov. 12.

Bojaj was happy to be able to undergo the training.

“It was just mainly to help,” he said.

Werenski said the Harper Woods Public Safety Department — which has a mutual aid agreement with the Pointes — wasn’t able to send an officer to Crisis Intervention Team training, but the Pointes would still send one of their CIT members to Harper Woods to assist officers there.