Start a criminal justice degree at American Military University.
By Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University,
Jeremy Nikolow, alumnus, Criminal Justice, American Military University and
Carrie Courtney, Contributor to In Public Safety
On a daily basis, law enforcement officers (LEOs) encounter individuals displaying mental health symptomology. It is unfortunate that typically the public only hears about law enforcement’s adverse interactions with those diagnosed with mental illness; such as when things go awry and negative outcomes occur. When these situations occur, LEOs enter reactionary mode, and they are forced to respond to media inquiries and social media hype, in real time. In both their message and rhetoric, law enforcement can come across as defensive, confusing, uncaring, and evasive.
This does not have to be the case. Law enforcement has the ability to get ahead of these encounters by partnering with others and demonstrating genuine concern to the mental health community. To do so, it would be beneficial to create the position of a mental health agency liaison officer.
What is a Mental Health Agency Liaison Officer?
In this designated role, the mental health agency liaison officer serves as a link between law enforcement entities, mental health agencies, substance abuse agencies, and local social service agencies. This includes for-profit and non-profit community-based mental health agencies in each district and jurisdiction.
As many mental health agency meetings and events are held during “normal business hours,” it may be best to designate an administrative member of the law enforcement agency as the mental health agency liaison officer. An administrative sergeant, lieutenant or higher ranked individual, free of the needs to respond to calls for service, should have the time to attend the necessary meetings and events that would be required for such a position.
The officer would work in partnership with symbiotic agencies on tasks such as psycho-education, networking, public awareness, public safety, outreach events, and the facilitation of referrals between agencies. They would also help foster and sustain a positive relationship between law enforcement agencies, the local government, mental health agencies, vocational rehabilitation services, and additional social service agencies.
The mental health agency liaison officer would serve as an advocate by attending and participating in law enforcement, mental health, and substance abuse agencies board meetings. In addition, he or she would actively serve on participating agencies board of directors, as requested.
In Volusia County, Florida, for example, there are multiple mental health agencies and social service providers. Through the designation of one individual as the mental health agency liaison officer between law enforcement and mental health, substance abuse, and social service agencies, the flow of internal and external communication would improve, thereby facilitating a positive alliance among all participants. Oversight provided by the mental health agency liaison officer would demonstrate the effectiveness and importance of their alliance by fostering solutions and decreasing the perpetuation of myths and negative community-based perceptions.
The Benefits of a Mental Health Agency Liaison Officer
One of the many goals of the mental health agency liaison officer would be to increase familiarity among LEOs and mental health, substance abuse, and social service providers. By putting a LEO presence in a constant advocacy role for those experiencing mental illness and substance abuse issues, all of the internal and external participants would work together cohesively to facilitate a united partnership. As such, the mental health agency liaison officer would create enhanced positive interactions between LEOs and those diagnosed with mental illness and substance abuse and dependence issues.
A collaborative approach could also help provide education to law enforcement about how “best” to approach a person with mental health needs and how to avoid exacerbating the situation. For example, there have been well-defined links between mental health and drug usage, anger issues, crime, and even homelessness. While law enforcement may seek a strict deterrent for drug or anger issues (e.g., incarceration), mental health agencies may be able to weigh in with a more rehabilitative approach (e.g., drug treatment or anger management) that would help reduce these “flare-ups” from people with mental health issues.
In addition, the mental health agency liaison officer can provide a singular voice to mental health agencies on many issues and concerns from a law enforcement standpoint. A uniform and consistent message on these issues can help to standardize the process and response from law enforcement to mental health issues. This makes it easier for mental health agencies to understand and know what to expect from law enforcement’s response to client issues and concerns. It can also lead to future support of these same issues and concerns. If law enforcement and mental health agencies support each other in their respective roles, it could go a long way in quelling concerns in the event of public scrutiny.
An excellent example of this involves the recent move many police agencies have been taking towards adopting de-escalation principles. De-escalation is essentially using the least amount of force necessary to resolve hostile situations, which usually involve people with mental health issues. De-escalation is based on the sanctity of human life and seeks to use communication, not force, as the preferred method for handling these issues. As the community and mental health agencies understand that law enforcement wants to identify and utilize non-force options to help subjects with mental health issues, it will help promote a mutual respect and desire for cooperation.
The mental health agency liaison officer could also serve as a key figure in integrating fiscal needs among mental health, substance abuse, and social service agencies by bringing grant revenue and other funding sources to the attention of these agencies (e.g., utilizing Veterans Affairs for military veterans with mental health needs and pharmaceutical companies for substance abuse clients). As a “neutral” third party, the mental health agency liaison officer could connect previously disjointed agencies that are often consistently in desperate need of funding and additional resources to serve the complex needs of their clientele.
By designating an individual as the mental health agency liaison officer, law enforcement agencies would demonstrate an active willingness to partner with mental health, substance abuse, and social service agencies. This will serve as a targeted effort to provide innovative solutions to assist those diagnosed with mental illness and substance abuse/dependence issues. The mental health agency liaison officer could become an integral problem solver in the mental health and substance abuse community by working interdependently with each agency to provide reliable support and collaborative, functional resources for individuals and families suffering from the disorderly destruction associated with mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, the mental health agency liaison officer will provide supportive assistance for individuals and agencies addressing mental health symptomology. This cooperative support will bring community-wide mental health and substance abuse assistance, while addressing the plethora of concerns associated with these diagnoses.
When things end badly, and unfortunately they do at times, would it be better to be viewed as part of the problem or part of the solution?
About the Authors:
Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University. He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the world. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, post-traumatic stress, nongovernment intelligence actors, and online learning.
Jeremy Nikolow, MS is a police lieutenant with a large Central Florida agency and adjunct faculty with colleges and universities. His law enforcement career began in 2005 and has involved several areas of patrol, investigations, motors, SWAT, and specialized operations Jeremy presently serves as watch commander. He graduated from American Military University in 2012 earning his Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice.
Carrie Courtney, MSW is the former grant specialist for a with a large Central Florida law enforcement agency. She was a founding member of the agency’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team as well as a team member of other state and district teams. She was contracted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance to review grants on a federal level. She is a member of the Florida Crisis Consortium, as well as a board member of a mental health organization, and the outgoing president of the Mental Health Association. She specialized in trauma and devoted most of her career to working with adult and children who experienced severe trauma.