The Janesville Police Department and a Rock County agency that responds to mental health crises hope to expand a partnership aimed at helping the mentally ill.

The basic idea, as expressed by Police Chief Dave Moore: “Arrests and jail are not the answer for that population that suffers from mental illness.”

If the proposal survives committee votes in the weeks ahead, the county board would vote Thursday, Feb. 13, on whether to approve a grant to fund a full-time crisis intervention worker who would respond to police calls.

A pilot program with a part-time crisis worker began in June, following in the steps of similar “co-responder” partnerships around the country.

As The Gazette reported earlier, crisis worker Wisteria Gunnink responds to calls and can provide services on scene, rather than letting police deal with the problem, which can end up with costly trips to a hospital emergency room or violent confrontation.

While the vast majority of the mentally ill are not a danger to others, encounters with mentally ill people in crisis can lead to tragedy.

Moore noted that nationwide those with mental illness are 17 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than others.

The county’s crisis intervention staff support all law enforcement agencies, but they are not as available as Gunnink is to Janesville police. She has her own radio and monitors police activity with it so she can respond when needed.

Lt. Mike Blaser, the department’s lead crisis intervention officer, said officers are pleased to be able to radio Gunnink when they need advice.

Gunnink might know those who are having the crisis and might have access to treatment plans that officers are not allowed to see.

Plans are to use about $48,000 from a $70,004 state mental health block grant to fund the full-time position until Sept. 30. The rest of the grant would enhance services at the Beloit Area Community Health Center.

Money reallocated in the county human services budget would continue the program to the end of the year.

Rock County Crisis program manager Bette Trimble said the police-crisis intervention program has shown its value to some extent, but better data quantifying results are needed.

Officials hope to gather that information in the coming year so they can decide whether to continue the program in 2021, Trimble said.

Trimble said one advantage of making the position full time is that her office will be able to devote more time to other parts of the county.

The Madison Police Department expanded its co-responder program after a 2016 evaluation showed positive results, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance.