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Wauwatosa police starting two initiatives to help people with mental health issues

Wauwatosa Police Department
Posted at 5:07 PM, Dec 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-07 18:07:48-05

WAUWATOSA, Wis. — The Wauwatosa Police Department is taking a major step in changing the way it handles police calls and people suffering from mental illness. It is adding behavioral health care workers both during and after some police contacts.

Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis wants to change the ways his department answer some police calls.

Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis
Wauwatosa Police Chief James MacGillis wants to change the ways his department answer some police calls involving mental health.

“We get called to all sorts of calls based on people’s behavior. Sometimes it is criminal behavior. Sometimes it is criminal behavior based on some underlying cause, whether it is substance use disorder, mental health issues or other issues that aren’t really a police-related issue but we just respond to those types of behaviors or medical concerns.”

Chief MacGillis is new to the Wauwatosa Police Department. He used to be with the Milwaukee Police Department, which currently has the Milwaukee Crisis Assessment Response Team or CART. It teams a behavior health worker with a police officer. MacGillis wants to do the same thing in Wauwatosa.

“They are going to answer those calls for service that are behavior-related, the tactical side of things, the day to day,” said MacGillis.

The second part of the approach involves a Wauwatosa Health Department social worker looking over police reports to determine if there are cases that need a mental health intervention.

Wauwatosa Police Department
Wauwatosa Police Department

“We are seeing a lot of people who are dealing with chronic mental health issues and new mental health issues throughout our community, and we really have gaps in our services to address some of those things,” said Laura Stephens, health officer for the Wauwatosa Health Department.

That gap often means people end up in jails and prison. According to the American Psychological Association, of the people incarcerated in the country, 64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prison inmates and 45 percent of federal prisoners have mental health concerns.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research and policy institute, recommends state and local government use the recently enacted American Rescue Plan to invest in non-police interventions.

“Where someone who is homeless or having a mental health crisis, breakdown, sending the police isn’t necessarily helping that person and could in fact lead to an unnecessary arrest, unnecessary incarceration of people who only need mental health treatment. So it is bad for the person, bad for our mental health system and it is bad for all of us because we know locking people up costs a lot of money,” said Ed Lazere, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Laura Stephens
Laura Stephens, health officer for the Wauwatosa Health Department, talks about the social worker the department will be hiring.

It is a lot of money. $60 billion a year is spent on state and federal prisons. According to Lazere, the American Rescue Plan will cover 85 present of the costs for communities that create a mobile crisis intervention unit, like what Wauwatosa is planning.

“It is much cheaper than policing in the first place, so you lower the cost and you have most of it paid for by the federal government,” said Lazere.

Laura Stephens
Laura Stephens is the health officer for the Wauwatosa Health Department.

“We’re really trying to get to the root cause of what’s causing some of these frequent 911 calls or frequent overdoses or a hoarding situation where it is no longer a safe living environment. Trying to intervene earlier on in that process so we can link those people to those resources before it gets to such a big problem,” said Stephens.

The Wauwatosa Police Department is looking to implement both these mental health responses early next year. The Health Department is currently in the hiring process for a social worker.

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