BRIDGETON — Two-thirds of the time police use force in New Jersey involve someone experiencing mental health issues, according to acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck. More than half of all fatal police encounters occur in similar circumstances.
On Tuesday, Bruck announced an initiative to have a certified mental health screener accompany State Police responding to 911 calls involving behavioral health crises, with an aim to improve those statistics.
The initiative will begin in Cumberland County at the State Police stations in Bridgeton and Port Norris.
Bruck and Col. Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the State Police, joined Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae and the Rev. Charles F. Boyer, director of salvation and social justice for the county, for a public discussion of the initiative and issues surrounding mental health and policing.
State officials have dubbed the initiative ARRIVE Together, short for “Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence and Escalation.” Plans are for the initiative to be assessed by the Rutgers School of Public Health to find the pilot program’s strengths and weaknesses.
The program will include interviews with participating troopers and screeners after their shifts responding to behavioral health emergencies, and review data relating to the qualifying calls for service. Future phases of the project will depend on the Rutgers evaluation.
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There are certified mental health screeners in all New Jersey counties, operating with state funding. The Cumberland County Guidance Center runs the crisis intervention and psychiatric screening program, working with State Police in the ARRIVE Together initiative. A Guidance Center screener will respond in the trooper’s vehicle to 911 calls relating to mental, emotional or behavioral crises during the pilot in the State Police’s areas of responsibility in Cumberland County.
The calls will include mental health incidents, confused or disoriented persons, welfare checks and suicide watches, officials said.
“In modern times, we ask law enforcement officers to undertake roles they never expected when choosing to serve: marriage counselor, addiction specialist, social worker. And increasingly, officers are asked to act like doctors and psychiatrists, determining what drug a person may have taken, or what mental health condition they may be experiencing,” said Bruck in a statement released Tuesday. “We need to respond to our community members in crisis with clinicians and compassion, and we need to divert individuals with mental illness away from the criminal justice system.
“This is about saving lives, and rebuilding them,” said Sarah Adelman, acting commissioner of the state Department of Human Services. “Improved outcomes between law enforcement and those dealing with a mental health crisis is a shared goal. By using a certified mental health screener to help assess situations, we can get an improved understanding of how to better avoid tragedies, enabling us to connect people with treatment.”
“What makes this program unique is that ARRIVE Together immediately connects a mental health professional to the person in crisis from the onset of the call for service,” said Callahan. “With this partnership, our strategies for response and treatment are significantly augmented, and gives us more options to assist the individual in need, based on the assessment of the mental health professional.”
Having a specialist on scene can help de-escalate dangerous situations, Callahan said, and the specialist will be able to recommend resources as the situation unfolds.
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A statement from the state Attorney General’s office included words of support for the program from multiple officials, activists and community members, including Gov. Phil Murphy and organizations representing troopers. The Rev. Michael K. Keene, senior pastor of Trinity AME Church in Bridgeton, said the program could save lives and reduce tension between law enforcement and minority communities.
“A police officer having the assistance of a mental health professional when called to a crisis promotes safety during the encounter and is a step towards long-term well-being for the person in crisis. Cumberland County stands ready to support this important initiative which truly reimagines what public safety will look like in the 21st century,” Webb-McRae said.