Last year, police in Mesa, Arizona, didn’t have access to mental health information about a woman holding a knife and threatening suicide.
As the incident escalated, the woman pointed the knife at officers. They shot her twice, and she later died at a hospital.
It was ruled a justifiable shooting, but if police would’ve had a more thorough understanding of the woman’s mental health issues, the situation might not have ended tragically, said Janesville Police Sgt. Mike Blaser.
Local authorities believe sharing behavioral health information could prevent something similar from happening in Rock County. The program, piloted by the Janesville Police Department, provides some details about a subject’s mental health before officers arrive on scene.
Now, other county law enforcement agencies could implement it, too.
The year-old system puts a visual flag on a person’s file in the police dispatch software. The flag gives officers some mental health information without revealing confidential medical details.
Blaser and Janesville officer Craig Klementz presented information about the program Tuesday at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport. Representatives from other police departments, the Rock County Sheriff’s Office, SSM Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also attended.
Many mental health crises are repeat incidents. Having a personalized plan for someone could help officers de-escalate a situation instead of aggravating it, Blaser said.
Blaser shared an example of one man who responds negatively to male police officers. The man told police about his condition and why female officers would be best in future situations.
Blaser, who serves as the lead supervisor on the Janesville police crisis information team, said his department was not trying to dictate how other agencies should operate. But the system is something that has worked for the Janesville department, and others could learn from it, he said.
Milton Police Chief Scott Marquardt said he was glad the program has been successful so far. More information about a person is always better for officers, he said.
“I’ve had questions from folks that I’ve talked to about this that said, ‘Well, do we treat everybody differently then?’ The answer is yes. Everybody’s different,” Marquardt said.
“When you think about it, if you’ve established a relationship with somebody, it’s going to be different dealing with them than it is a stranger. It’s because you know more about them.”
Clinton Police Chief David Hooker called the program an “awesome initiative” and “long overdue.” He wishes it was around five years ago when someone in a mental health crisis nearly killed him, he said.
He didn’t learn about that person’s mental health issues until after the incident. Having that knowledge beforehand would have changed his approach and reaction, Hooker said.
Blaser said many people experiencing mental health challenges have thanked Janesville police for listening to their problems.
“Eliminating the stigmatization that you can’t be treated for mental health is a big part of that. I think the response we’ve seen from the community has been really strong,” Blaser said. “Like, thanks for not stigmatizing my condition or treating me like a thing, but treating me like a person who is just dealing with a problem.”