Local Officers Stepping Up to Prevent People with Mental Illnesses Entering Jails

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Local Officers Stepping Up to Prevent People with Mental Illnesses Entering Jails

Probation Officer P.J. Newbert with CIT-trained Officers Jennifer Parker and Bridget Byam Novak after conducting door-to-door wellness visits, inspired by the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) community policing model.


“CIT outreach is important because it bridges a gap between people in our community who are in need of resources and the officers that serve the community”


The Lorain County Adult Probation (LCAP) Department has initiated a creative way to prevent the arrest and incarceration of people with mental illness. Once a month, a three-officer team conducts door-to-door wellness visits, inspired by the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) community policing model, and by the national Stepping Up Initiative, to prevent arrest, redirect those in need to treatment, and connect people already incarcerated with the right services for recovery.

“After coming into and out of the criminal justice system multiple times, individuals having severe mental illness can develop disdain, even contempt, for law enforcement professionals due to prior unpleasant interactions. It is our goal to create new law-related interactions with people, so that they can begin to let their guard down and trust us to work with and for them, rather than send them to jail time after time. It’s really about reaching out to help people in crisis and to develop rapport,” says Officer Bridget Byam Novak with Lorain County Adult Probation, a member of the new outreach team.

Currently, Officer Novak, Officer Jennifer Parker, and Officer Cassandra Spears are the only Crisis Intervention Team trained officers at LCAP. CIT is a model for community policing that connects law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency departments, and individuals with mental illness and their families to improve responses to people in crisis.

CIT is one of many strategies to divert low-level offenders from jail. CIT officers have undergone training, usually through community mental health agencies, to de-escalate without force, properly restrain individuals and make initial assessments on how to handle the situation. Ideally, once a Crisis Intervention Team officer responds to a call, they can help de-escalate the situation, keeping the subject and bystanders safe, and then put those involved in contact with the mental health resources that are needed.

Lorain County is one of 33 Ohio counties and 389 counties nationwide to join the Stepping Up Initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails, an effort that aligns with local planning in mental health care and supports the CIT model.

“A current, major goal of the local mental health network is to reduce the number of people with severe and persistent mental illness who are inappropriately involved in the criminal justice system,” says Dr. Kathleen Kern, Executive Director of the Lorain County Board of Mental Health (LCBMH), and a Stepping Up partner. “Our goal is to create a safer environment for law enforcement personnel and residents by training first responders in how to interact successfully with someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis.”

More than 200 local first responders from 15 different departments have received crisis intervention training from LCBMH over the last 14 years. In recent months, LCBMH sponsored 78 officers in Trauma Informed Policing Training that meets State of Ohio requirements for law enforcement officers. Last year, LCBMH brought in internationally acclaimed expert in high-stress workplaces, Françoise Mathieu, to speak to local first responders and crisis professionals, which was so well received that the local youth juvenile justice system invited Mathieu to conduct a recent training for their staff.

Novak and her colleagues are pursuing their new outreach approach under the direction of Chief Probation Officer Beth Cwalina with CIT as one of the strategies backed by the Stepping Up initiative coordinated jointly by the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office and LCBMH.

Novak says it is one small but potentially powerful approach that can improve community relations. She says that four months ago, when she and her team started their visits, residents were wary.


“They would see us at the door and ask, ‘Am I in trouble?’”


“They would see us at the door and ask, ‘Am I in trouble?’” Novak says. “We try to build rapport with people who are struggling with mental illness. We check in, ask what we can do to help, have conversations, ask if they are taking their medications and feeling OK, and provide a link to services if they need them. My hope is that if someone is having trouble, they’ll think, ‘Maybe I should reach out to my Probation Officer; she’ll help,’ rather than spiraling down into a crisis situation.”

“CIT outreach is important because it bridges a gap between people in our community who are in need of resources and the officers that serve the community. It gives officers and community partners who interact with individuals with mental illness or those in crisis the tools to better understand how to best serve them. Hopefully, as more people in the community become educated in crisis intervention, it will decrease the stigma of mental illness and allow us the opportunity to provide resources to people when they are most vulnerable,” noted LCAP Officer Spears.

LCAP is devoted to community policing, most recently winning the 2017 Clifford Skeen Award by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The Clifford Skeen Award was initiated as part of former Gov. George Voinovich’s administration to demonstrate commitment to community corrections as a viable alternative to incarceration.

“I am very grateful for my Crisis Intervention Training,” said LCAP Officer Parker. “I am hopeful that the incarceration rate of those diagnosed with a mental illness will slowly decrease with continued Crisis Intervention Training for first responders.”

For Stepping Up, counties develop diverse teams of sheriffs, jail administrators, judges, community corrections professionals, treatment providers, people with mental illnesses and their families, and mental health program directors to coordinate and tackle system-wide approaches for preventing people with mental illness cycling through jails.

The national initiative launched because the number of people with severe mental illness in U.S. jails has reached crisis levels. An estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails. That is equivalent to the populations of Vermont and New Hampshire, combined.

Local Stepping Up partners include: Lorain County Sheriff’s Office, Lorain County Adult Probation, Lorain County Court of Common Pleas, LCBMH, Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services of Lorain County, Lorain County Commissioners, Mercy and UH hospital systems, Firelands, Life Care, as well as corrections and probation officers, and other community partners.


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