EILIANA WRIGHT, Health & Poverty Fellow—With the new president-elect decided, many people are anxiously waiting for what new policy changes will come. COVID-19 cases are at an all time high, protests are continuing and both sides of the political spectrum are wondering where we will be as a country in as little as two months. 

Given how hard this election season has been, it’s easy to worry about how things will change on a small-scale everyday basis. However, it is important to remember that things are changing, even at a slow pace.  One example of a policy change that is benefitting people at a community-level can be seen with the Columbus Police Department’s effort to improve the way they respond to emergency calls. 

The department has been working for the past two years to implement a program that works with a local social work organization to create a more mental-health conscious and rehabilitative approach to the way they respond to emergency calls. Columbus police officers are now trained an additional forty hours in Crisis Intervention, and the CPD has created a program called “mobile crisis” where a social worker from Netcare rides with a trained CIT police officer to answer calls that involve a mental illness crisis in order to reduce harm and promote healthier outcomes like hospitalization or rehabilitation.

Dennis Jeffrey, the Commander of the Columbus Police Department as of May 2020, started out as the trail-blazing advocate for the incorporation of the Crisis Intervention Training back in 2018. In an interview with City Chat in 2019, Jeffrey spoke on the new policies he was successfully pushing through, and why they were so important for officers in the field. 

“We provide an additional 40 hours of training to our officers so that they understand de-escalation, they have additional resources and it really teaches a perspective piece, so when they go to these houses, they understand that there’s a lot going on in that moment,” he said.  “So they can handle that situation effectively and safely.”  

He said the most important thing they are trying to teach officers to do is to slow down, and approach the situation as safely as possible for all parties involved. 

“That’s the major thing. Slow down, assess the situation, and see where we can bring the individual for help,” Jeffrey said. “Sometimes we take them to the hospital, [and] sometimes we take them to Netcare, which is a county crisis center.”

Netcare, the organization the police department partnered with, is a mental health crisis intervention facility for people with disabilities, substance abuse issues and other mental illnesses. 

“We also deal a lot with substance abuse,” Jeffrey said. “We’re dealing with a heroin epidemic in this county, so I also train officers on administration of Narcan.”

The Columbus city website data shows that 4,434 service runs have been made by the Columbus Fire Department and emergency medical services in response to suspected overdose calls in Franklin County from the week of Jan. 13 to the week of Nov. 8. It is exciting and important to see an organization effectively adjust their system to create a better way to help people in crisis and protect the community at the same time. Jeffrey said the most preferable situation in a criminal act would be when the police department is able to “summon” them, meaning “[the police] can have them appear in court, [they] don’t arrest them that night and then [they] can get them to a mental health facility and get them evaluated.”

“That, a lot of times, is more effective, because we’re really addressing both issues—the criminal act, and also the mental health issue to get them assessed properly,” Jeffrey said. 

 In this situation, the Columbus Police Department is not only responding to emergency calls to protect people, but they are also doing the best they can to rehabilitate and potentially help offenders, who can sometimes just be very mentally sick, and in desperate need of medical attention. Jeffrey said that most of the time, the person is already linked to a mental health provider, but has stopped going to appointments or taking their medication, so the added benefit of their new system is the ability to reconnect those people with Netcare or other providers to get them back on track. 

 Studies have shown that crisis intervention training not only offers better and more satisfactory outcomes for officers, but it also lessens the force used in situations of crisis. Especially with “defunding the police” being a hot-button political issue and the Black Lives Matter movement bringing racial injustices to light, it’s exciting to see a police department taking initiative to solve these problems. However, there is no connection between “Defund The Police” and the Columbus Police Department’s efforts to respond to emergency situations. The CIT program at the Columbus Police Department began in early 2018, and Jefferey noted that in one year, they were able to make up to 20,000 CIT calls. 

Remember, too, that the “Defund The Police” is not about abolishing police departments, it’s about funneling money into important organizations just like Netcare.