Corporal Shelley Postle remembers blocking traffic at SE Williston Road and SE 16th Avenue in East Gainesville as cars slowed and stopped to avoid a wreck.
“I had to pull my car up and turn it sideways with my lights on so that people were able to see us and slow down and go around us,” Postle recalled.
Postle stood in the middle of the road talking to a woman with schizophrenia who was having a psychotic episode.
“I made contact with her and was able to just talk with her and keep her talking until other officers got there,” Postle said in an interview.
Two weeks later, she followed up. The woman was stable on her medication and thanked Postle for the interaction.
Postle said the woman was pretty fearful of the police, but after continuing to follow up over the phone and in person, Postle built rapport.
“Eventually, it got to where she would call us for help rather than people calling because she’s walking in the middle of the road trying to get cars to hit her,” Postle said. “To me that was definitely a big victory.”
Postle has served on the Gainesville Police Department’s (GPD) Co-Responders Teams (CRT) since the program started in 2018, making her the most tenured member. The program consists of four teams of two—one police officer and one clinician from Meridian Behavioral Healthcare—who patrol the often convoluted intersection of law enforcement and mental health.
“To me, it was the best of both worlds,” Postle said. “I love being a cop, but then I love psychology.”
The two-person teams patrol throughout the week and spearhead GPD’s response to mental health, substance abuse and emotionally charged calls.
Elliot Schmidt, the clinician paired with Postle, said these teams approach calls with a deliberately different perspective.
“When we go to a call, we are already operating from the mindset that, unless we absolutely have to, we are going to try to not take this person to jail and not take this person involuntarily to a facility,” Schmidt said.
Unless a harsher response is needed, CRTs try to understand the person and guide them to community resources like Meridian Behavioral Healthcare programs and detox programs.
The approach takes patience and time. Postle said the fact that CRT units follow up with the people they encounter sets it apart from typical law enforcement responses.
To join the team, officers receive additional de-escalation and mental health first aid training, and the clinicians take tactical and tactical combat casualty care courses.
All clinicians hold master’s degrees relating to the work, and Postle also earned a master’s in forensic psychology from Nova Southeastern University.
Postle scans GPD’s incoming call screen to pick out the ones appropriate for a CRT, and officers arriving to a call can request a CRT unit to aid or take over a situation. Sometimes, Postle will get a call or email from officers asking for advice.
Besides specialized training and a different mindset, CRT personnel can spend more time per call talking with people, understanding their background and connecting them with needed resources.
“The people that are affected by mental illnesses and substance use disorders, they’re more in need of treatment rather than the punitive way of doing it,” Postle said.
While jail systems have some programs to assist with mental health, that route is less than optimal, Schmidt and Postle said.
For an alcoholic, Schmidt explains, a 30-day detox through a community partner will probably be more effective than the support provided in prison.
Plus, exiting a detox program leaves individuals free from criminal backgrounds that hinder job applications and housing.
“We’re kinda operating from the perspective of helping to resolve the crisis in the least restrictive method possible, and we have the extra tools to assess if a Baker Act is necessary, for example, or the extent of the mental health issues they’re dealing with because of our training and experience,” Schmidt said.
The Florida Baker Act allows law enforcement to force individuals to undergo a mental health examination based on certain criteria.
For CRTs, the Baker Act is more restrictive if they can get someone to voluntarily submit to an exam and program. But, it’s less restrictive than jail.
Last year, CRT units responded to 792 calls, including invoking the Baker Act 109 times. They also reported 104 jail diversions, meaning a person could legally have been arrested but CRT responders chose an alternative.
Of course, sometimes officers have only one choice―arrest.
Postle said if a CRT responds to a violent offense, like a stabbing, the team’s options are restricted, even if a mental health issue sparked the incident.
“In that case, they have to go to jail because we don’t really have much discretion, but at the same time, they’re going to get as much treatment as they possibly can within the criminal justice system,” Postle said.
An article by the Brookings Institution pointed to the deaths of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, and a 13-year-old with autism in Utah as proof of the risks associated with relying on law enforcement to deal with mental health episodes and crises.
It pointed to programs designed similarly to GPD’s Co-Responders Teams as a potential way forward and highlighted several current models across the country.
In Eugene, Oregon, a program called CAHOOTS sends two non-law enforcement personnel to scenes of non-violent, behavioral health situations. If needed, those teams can call for law enforcement backup, but they only did so 150 times out of 25,000 calls received in 2019.
Over the last few years, police departments have focused on improving its mental health response by requiring mental health training or adding team’s that specialize in this area.
Currently, GPD requires an eight-hour course called Mental Health First Aid for all new hires. They learn how to identify different mental illnesses and local resources.
Within the first couple of years, officers enter a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), learning about treatments, jail diversions and the Baker Act. The course also entails practice of different techniques like active listening and paraphrasing.
The National Alliance on Mental Health reported that around 2 million people with serious mental health issues are put in jail each year, and 5.2 percent of U.S. adults experienced severe mental health illness in 2019.
National protests in 2020 focused a spotlight on law enforcement, including its response to mental health.
“We were a little bit ahead of the curve as far as what the society’s call for action has been, and that’s something that we’re very proud of,” Postle said.
She said other officers have given positive feedback of CRTs. The teams sit in on shift briefings to reiterate their purpose and how they try to support all officers.
“Along with being there for the community, we’re there for the other officers as well,” Schmidt said. “So that they’re able to go to other calls for service [and] we’re handling the mental health and crisis related calls.”
Each week CRTs deploy one team on Sunday, two on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, three on Wednesday, and all four on Thursday.
Postle said the biggest goal is to increase to 24/7 coverage. Currently, these teams are only active during the day, staying out at the latest until 11 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday.
“We just want to keep showing everybody compassion and helping people out as best as we can,” Postle said.