Lincoln police: Mental health investigations are on the rise

June 28, 2018

A couple weekends ago, Lincoln police found themselves facing a serious problem. There was nowhere left to take people going through a mental health crisis, Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said.

The 66-bed mental health unit at Bryan West was full. The Crisis Center’s 16 beds were, too. The Bridge treatment center even had accepted a patient under emergency protective status.

At a city budget meeting last week, Bliemeister told the Lincoln City Council an officer had to go with Midwest Medical to transport someone in crisis to a hospital in Hastings, 100 miles west, because there was nowhere to take them here.

The following day another officer stayed with a patient, who had been taken into emergency protective custody, or EPC’d, for more than six hours before a bed finally opened up at the Crisis Center.

Bliemeister said later the Police Department, Bryan Health, the Crisis Center and the Bridge all do the best they can to help vulnerable members of the community experiencing acute mental health crises so severe they need to be taken into emergency protective custody.

“While these levels of demand for mental health services are not always overwhelmed, they are increasingly at or near the capacity,” he said.

And there’s no sign of that stopping, given the number of mental health calls Lincoln police respond to has been going up year after year.

In 2017, the department handled 3,543 calls, including suicides, attempted suicides and mental health investigations, Bliemeister said.

And, through May, they’ve already seen a 9.8 percent increase this year compared with the same period last year.

Officer Luke Bonkiewicz said mental health calls still only account for about 2.5 percent of all calls for service in Lincoln. But they tend to take longer.

He said cops are very good at responding to incidents involving criminal violations because it’s much more black and white.

“With mental health calls, there’s much more gray area,” Bonkiewicz said.

Officers respond and want to help, he said, but sometimes the resources aren’t available.

“There’s also the challenge of taking a long-term view of assisting mental health consumers,” Bonkiewicz said.

That means establishing a rapport with the individual in an effort to find out what’s going on and what spurred the crisis, calling treatment facilities and considering placement options.

“I do something now, I want it to have an impact,” he said.

Bonkiewicz said there have been incidents elsewhere where officers have responded inappropriately, born out of a lack of training or ignorance. But police departments nationally have started recognizing there’s a better way.

He said what Lincoln does has been two or three decades in the making. It includes:

* New officers in the academy get a day of training on how to respond to and investigate mental health calls, how to recognize symptoms and available services. They get a second day of role-playing scenarios, making decisions about what to do and writing detailed reports in an effort to paint a complete picture if officers are called back. And they get field training.

* The department also has in-service training to keep all officers up on the best new practices on things like de-escalation and threat assessment.

* Officers also are encouraged to collaborate with community partners, like the Mental Health Association of Nebraska, and take advantage of resources like the REAL program, in which peer specialists refer people with mental illness to free, voluntary and non-clinical support.

When Bonkiewicz became an officer in 2011, he had no idea mental health calls would be such a big part of his job. But he said it wouldn’t have swayed him from being an officer.

People used to think of an officer’s job as catching burglars and stopping robbers, he said.

“We are that, but we’re also contacting people in crisis,” Bonkiewicz said.

Sometimes, someone in crisis ends up assaulting an officer. If they do, he said, they’ll hold them accountable while still getting them access to the help they need.

There are dangerous individuals out there who commit crimes and need to be in jail or prison, Bonkiewicz said. But the majority of people who live with mental illness aren’t.

“If we can divert people from going down that path, maybe we can save someone’s life,” he said.