Johnson County police agencies employ specialists to assist in mental health situations

JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. -- Police agencies in Johnson County are taking a new approach to address a steady spike in the number of calls involving someone with mental health issues.

Two more departments will now have full-time mental health professionals, working as co-responders with police.

Beth Egbert keeps a police radio at her desk. She keeps her ears open for situations that might need her expertise.

"Sometimes it feels like it’s putting out fires just because there’s so much need and volume of people that are hurting and struggling with mental illness," said Egbert.

For the past several months, Egbert has been teaming up with the Lenexa and Shawnee Police Departments, embedded with officers as a mental health co-responder.

"Often times they’re pretty dangerous calls for service—somebody threatening harm to themselves or already they may be harmed," said patrol Sgt. Jason Hinkle with Lenexa Police.

Egbert works with Johnson County's Mental Health Center, giving her access to all those records along with police records through her co-responder role. That allows critical information on a person's history to be at her fingertips, thereby streamlining the crisis response.

"It’s been a huge benefit. We still do the same things as far as making the scene safe. Once it is safe, we can call Beth up and try to interact with the family, try to bridge that gap, especially if a crime has not been committed or there's no criminal intent," Hinkle said.

"I don’t look like an officer. I don’t dress like them. I don’t have weapons. So I just try to connect with them, try to discuss what options there might be," said Egbert.

Nicholas VanAlst, 16, loves the police, and he's seen a lot of them over the years.

"Every day is a challenge. Meltdowns, tantrums," said Michael Anthony VanAlst, Nicholas' father.

Michael Anthony's son has severe autism, ADHD, and has the mental capacity of a toddler. His behaviors have often led to self harm and trying to hurt others. But he's seen a huge turnaround, thanks to help from the Mental Health Center and its police co-responders.

"Our safety crisis plan is when he is starting to escalate to call for a crisis interventions officer and try to de-escalate the situation before they get here as much as I possibly can," said VanAlst.

Within the past month, Nicholas has been fully discharged from the Mental Health Center's routine check-ins.

"We don’t want a person to end up incarcerated because of just a true mental health issue. We want them to remain in the community and live their life," Egbert said.

Nicholas' dad is thrilled to learn Lenexa and Shawnee are now expanding to have full-time mental health co-responders in their police departments. Olathe is adding a second co-responder soon. That means more families in Johnson County will have access to managing mental health.

"There's not a dollar sign you can put on something like that. A certain simple thank you, it just isn't enough," said VanAlst.

Last year alone, Johnson County co-responders made more than 3,200 contacts, and helped at least 37 people avoid going to jail, and 142 more avoided trips to the emergency room.

The front-line interventions help prevent police from visiting the same people over and over again, and instead results in getting those individuals connected to the help they need.