Milwaukee County expanding crisis intervention program

Connecting people in a crisis: Milwaukee County is making potentially life-saving additions to do just that.

This month a fifth CART team hits the streets with West Allis Police. CART stands for Crisis Assessment Response Team. A police officer pairs with a mental health professional to address 911 calls with a mental health component.

It's been going on since 2013, but the CART team tells us the number of calls they get that can be addressed with a combination of mental health and law enforcement is quickly growing.

Teams we talked to told The I-Team they've been able to stop people from hurting themselves even before getting get to a scene.

If you ask James Combs if he's better off now than before he met the CART team, he doesn't mince words.

"Yes," he said definitively.

Until that January day, Combs was homeless, living in a downtown parking garage.

"You've got to worry about where you sleep, how can you eat," he said.

Then Combs broke his ankle. He pushed the elevator call button, reaching the Milwaukee Police Department, who realized combs was also in a mental health crisis. 

"I went to a hospital in order to have treatment," he said. That's where the CART team connected with Combs.

"You have two communities that come together that historically have been handling the situation on opposite ends of the spectrum," said Lieutenant Cassandra Libal of the Milwaukee Police Department.

Libal is the coordinator for the Crisis Intervention Team and the Supervisor for CART. She brings together mental health resources and the law enforcement sector.

Officers like Libal pair up with a Milwaukee County Behavioral Health clinician to address 911 calls involving mental health issues. 

"What we really need to do is take a step back and look at why is that individual in that particular circumstance," she said.

In Combs' case it was a combination of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other issues.

"You need to have someone who's going to encourage you," he said.

Clinician Maya Robinson explains that's part of the cart team's purpose. 

"There was a young lady that was thinking about taking pills you know she was in the bathroom she wants to you know end her life she thinks this is the only way out," she said. "So you get on the phone on the way there and you start working on it right then," said Robinson.

In an extreme crisis, police officers have authority to take someone into emergency custody. But Robinson and Libal said they want to avoid that.

"Some people are in the middle where they don't really need hospitalization but they're in a present crisis," Robinson said.

In 2017, CART responded to more than 1,200 calls. On about 600 of the calls, a CART team made face-to-face contact. Almost 90 percent of the time, they prevented emergency detention or hospitalization.  

"So if we can use CART to get them stabilized within the community and never having to leave out of the safety of their homes then that obviously is going to have a much better outcome," Libal said.

She said it also saves taxpayers.

"We've been able to mitigate a lot of calls just because of that kind of intervention," she said.

Once the CART team makes contact, they can connect people like Combs with the kind of resources that can help them beyond their moment of crisis.

"Because right then we have to mitigate that crisis and get that person safe but there is some trauma in there that still has to be worked out so I think that's a big piece of it too just going back digging trying to see where it is and what it needs," Robinson said.

For Combs that was stability. He now has a key to his room at Pathfinders.

"This is one of your keys to the future," he said. "So make your time count and have positive thinking," he said.

In cases where a team doesn't make direct contact, they're often able to get people to the right resources over the phone or with a consultation.

Here are a few of the resources available through Milwaukee County:

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