First-of-its-kind partnership between RCSD and the S.C. Department of Mental Health

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced the establishment of a new CRISIS INTERVENTION TEAM (CIT), an operational partnership between the Richland County Sheriff’s Dept. (RCSD) and the S.C. Dept. of Mental Health (SCDMH), Wed., Feb. 24: The CIT having been formed on Feb. 3.

“A person with a mental illness – or one who is suffering from mental health issues – is not a criminal,” says Lott. “But for far too long they’ve been treated as such.”

According to Lott, law enforcement officers are too-often those who are called upon to respond to non-crime mental health or behavioral health incident, when what is needed is a pairing between a specially trained law enforcement officer (for safety) and mental health professional to effectively address the problem.

“The solution for someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis is not necessarily a fully uniformed officer rolling up in a marked police car,” says Lott. “That kind of visible law enforcement presence can create greater stress and even escalate the situation.”

That’s why the new CIT was formed.

Last year, RCSD received nearly 2,800 mental health crisis calls wherein deputies were dispatched to crises in which the given situations might have been better served by a different approach.

The solution for RCSD has been to develop training for deputies and now the new CIT.

“We’ve set goals for the last few years to address this,” says Lott. “We’ve had more than 70 deputies attend a 40-hour crisis intervention training program. In 2019, we had every deputy attend a four-hour mental health crisis training program. But we wanted to take it a step further.”

For well over a year, RCSD has been working closely with SCDMH in the development of the CIT.

RCSD Capt. David Soto, a former region commander, has been tasked with “leading” the team, says Lott. Paired with a trained RCSD officer will be a mental health professional from SCDMH, both of whom will respond to a given mental health crisis together as the CIT.

Already, the CIT has responded to 64 calls between Feb. 3 and Feb. 24. “I’ve seen progress being made,” says Lott.

Allison E. Farrell, director of the Office of Emergency Services at SCDMH, agrees.

“The Crisis Intervention Team is an opportunity for two different agencies to come together and really be forward-thinking about how we provide support to our communities,” Farrell says. “This pairing of a deputy and a licensed masters-prepared mental health clinician going out into our communities allows us to not only respond in a very best-practice and evidence-based way, but it also allows us to provide some prevention; so that things don’t escalate. We don’t want people to end up in jail. And we don’t want them to end up in emergency rooms unless that’s where they need to be.”

Farrell adds, “This program also allows us to do some collaborative follow-up where that deputy and that clinician can go back out and really support these people with mental illness, their families, and their neighbors and to make sure we’re providing them the best care possible.”

According to an official statement released by RCSD: “The goal of the Crisis Intervention Team is to reduce custodial arrests; reduce the strain on the judicial system; decrease unnecessary and expensive emergency room visits for individuals in behavioral health crisis; improve access and referral to community services; provide an immediate response to crisis situations; and to provide post-incident follow up by working with individuals, family members and caregivers to reduce the likelihood of a new crisis situation arising.”

The new Crisis Intervention Team is the first program in S.C. to embed a mental health clinician from SCDMH with law enforcement in order to respond to community mental health needs.

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