A new strategy is in the works for community policing in Salisbury — one that leaders hope will innovate the way officers respond to mental health crises.
The Salisbury Police Department is among the three recipients of this year’s Police Reform and Racial Justice Grants through a partnership between The United States Conference of Mayors and Target. The $75,000 award announced Monday will go toward a “Salisbury Police Mental Health Collaborative Partnership.”
Neighborhood meetings and workshops about the state of policing in Salisbury had already been underway when the opportunity to apply for the grant emerged, Police Chief Barbara Duncan said in a Monday news conference.
Leaders continued to circle back to a “co-responder model” as a potential next phase. This setup would partner a police officer with a social worker to address community needs.
About six or seven years ago, the police department chose not to step away from responding to calls for service related to social welfare, which includes mental health, Duncan explained.
Since then, the police department has incorporated de-escalation training, collaboration with the city’s homelessness coordinator to get people into stable housing and partnership with prosecutors to divert certain issues out of the courtroom altogether.
It’s an effort that takes lots of education, Duncan noted, and often a veteran officer to understand a crisis and link community members to necessary services.
“But we don’t have, what we’re lacking is a professional trained specifically to identify mental health related issues, work with veterans, understand what the issues related to substance abuse are and how that cycles into crime and what we can do about it as a community,” she said.
The grant money is a step in that direction.
“Having the ability, the financial wherewithal to now actually deploy with a social worker, having a social worker embedded and riding along with police officers out to calls for service is the next logical evolutionary step that our city can take,” Duncan said.
Mayor Jake Day stressed during the news conference that law enforcement across the country are starting to see mental health as a component of policing that demands a more nuanced approach.
“By partnering with local health providers to pursue a model of crisis prevention, we can offer the most appropriate care for a citizen in distress and avert a situation that might otherwise end up in arrest,” he said.
Day called the grant “a down payment” as part of the city’s continuing process of being responsive to needs as they arise.
The new mental health initiative is a part of a “holistic look at community policing,” Day said. It’s aimed at better serving community members and fine tuning the response to mental health related calls for service by giving officers the skills to do their jobs effectively and safely.
“We train our officers to anticipate anything, but that’s not enough,” Day said. “It is leadership’s duty to the officer and to the citizen in crisis to minimize the risk of complication in any interaction, to change the circumstances that could lead to a situation becoming something it shouldn’t be.”