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When and why Milwaukee police partner with social workers to respond to mental health crises

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Posted at 5:53 PM, Mar 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-07 19:22:22-05

MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee woman says she called police to her home over the weekend after her husband armed himself with a gun and was dealing with a mental health crisis.

Marqueta Dekeyser says she wouldn't have called police if she knew they were going to shoot and injure him.

“I called for help, I wanted help, not this, not at all,” Dekeyser said.

While the Milwaukee Police Association wouldn’t speak on the officer-involved shooting that’s currently under investigation, President Andrew Wagner agreed to talk about training and deescalation tactics the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) uses to address mental health calls.

Wagner says all Milwaukee police officers receive 40 hours of training on how to respond to mental health crises. MPD also has a program in which mental health professionals partner with officers on scenes, but there are situations where social workers can’t always assist.

Wagner says MPD responded to 7,800 mental health related calls last year alone.

"We're tasked with a lot of different roles, one of them being mental health, but we can't be an expert in all fields,” Wagner said.

That’s why in 2013, MPD launched "Crisis Assessment Response Teams," known as CART teams, where three specially trained officers are paired with social workers to deescalate mental health crises in real-time.

"They can't go into a place where it's unsafe. The scene has to be secured for the social worker's safety and then they can go in to make that dialogue with the consumer,” he said.

Lauren Hubbard manages the CART teams in Milwaukee. She says their social workers have extensive training to determine the best way to help those people in need.

"To have a mental health professional who's trained in crisis response, in crisis intervention to be a part of that response, is truly helpful to be able to help people choose the resources that are best helpful for them,” she said.

Wagner says MPD’s CART teams responded to 928 critical incidents in 2021. He says in 85 percent of those responses, the situation ended without the subject needing to be detained.

Hubbard says Milwaukee approved funding to expand from three CART teams to six so they can provide the service around the clock. Currently, CART teams cover 13 hour shifts on weekdays and 8 hour shifts on weekends.

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“I do think this approach saves lives,” Hubbard said. “We have the opportunity to come into the community where folks are needing help and assistance in a trauma informed way, person-centered, reaching people where they and being able to offer voluntary options."

"What we do in the United States and in Wisconsin is we allow a mental health crisis to get to a crisis instead of treating it earlier,” said Mary Kay Battaglia.

Battaglia is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Wisconsin. She believes more resources are needed to address mental health before a problem becomes a crisis.

"What would be so much better is if we had more mental health providers in the state, if we had a better mental health system, if insurance identified and acknowledged that mental health is as important as physical health, if we treated it downstream then we wouldn't need so much of a crisis response,” she said.

Milwaukee County has a crisis line to directly link residents with mental health resources. It can be reached at 414-257-7222.

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