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Official Journal of Northwestern Center for Public Safety

The Key

// Featured Staff Study //

Should a Mental Health Consultant Be Added to Support the Crisis Team for the Commerce City Police Department?

by Dennis Flynn, SPSC #443
Submitted November 2018, Golden, CO

Problem

Commerce City is located in the central area of Colorado, northeast of Denver. It is home to 55,923 residents. (US Census Bureau) The Commerce City Police Department (CCPD) is responsible for supplying police services to Commerce City. The police agency is comprised of 140 employees, of which 112 are commissioned officers. (ANNEX A)1

Although Commerce City is relatively small in comparison to many other cities, it recently has been challenged with an increase in serious crimes. According to a 2018 survey, Commerce City has a crime rate which is 28% higher than the national average. (AreaVibes) The widespread use of drugs nationally, regionally, and locally has not only contributed to the crime rate but also has been attributed to the increase of people experiencing mental health crises.

The increases in crime, drug-related mental-health crises, and nondrug-induced mental illnesses have caused a dramatic increase in the number of callouts to which the CCPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) have responded. In 2015, the CCPD’s SWAT team and CNT responded to 16 callouts. Within the first seven months of 2018, the callout requests to these specialized teams already total 23, an increase of 44% since 2015. (ANNEX B)
At present, the CCPD CNT is comprised of six members and supervised by a team leader. The team’s function is to respond to these events to negotiate a peaceful resolution. While each team member has received specialized training, none of them, nor any other employee of the CCPD, is a licensed mental health professional.ANNEX B

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With CNT’s drastic increase in callouts, should a mental health professional be added to the team to assist them in the goal of obtaining peaceful resolutions? If so, CCPD and the community would most certainly benefit.

Assumptions
  • Most CNT and SWAT team callouts involve hostage situations.
  • Callouts for the CCPD’s CNT and SWAT team will continue to increase.
  • SWAT / CNT callouts will remain low-frequency, high-risk events that can result in civil litigation.
  • Addition of a paid mental health professional as a CNT consultant will not result in a financial burden to the department.
Facts
  • According to the FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System only 4% of the callouts to which hostage or crisis negotiators respond actually involve a hostage. (Thompson)
  • The callout rate for the CCPD CNT and SWAT team has increased steadily since 2015. From 2015 through August 2018, the callout volume has risen 44%. (ANNEX B)
  • The average tenure of CCPD CNT members is 1.83 years. (ANNEX C)
  • More than 39% of nationwide CNTs currently use a mental health professional. (Butler)
  • The average billable rate for a psychologist in the Denver area is $43.70 per hour. (ANNEX D)
  • The cost is negligible compared to the added benefit of an on-scene licensed mental health professional providing guidance.
  • The budget for the CNT is included with the SWAT budget (formerly known as SSU). The SWAT/CNT yearly budget is $12,000. (ANNEX E)
Discussion

Background

Commerce City, CO, is spread over 35 square miles. Although its physical size has not changed, the number of people moving into Commerce City has nearly tripled since 2010, with nearly 56,000 residents now calling it their home. (World Population Review).

A contributing factor to the population increase has been the 2012 legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. (CMLIA) While the legalization of marijuana has generated tremendous revenues for both Commerce City and the State of Colorado, it has also brought some unwelcomed consequences, including an increase in crime, quadrupled hospital rates for marijuana users, and an increase of persons with mental health issues from chronic marijuana usage.(AAP) Many marijuana users believe in its therapeutic properties, but in a paper produced by the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the US National Library of Medicine, researchers opined, “Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is associated with psychosis, anxiety, and depression symptoms, making exacerbation of underlying psychiatric disorders inevitable.” (Monte)

The CCPD is responsible for policing Commerce City. Staffed with only 112 sworn officers, enforcing the various daily criminal violations can be a challenge. (ANNEX A) Most events to which the officers respond are handled without incident. Unfortunately, an increase in events involving armed, barricaded, or suicidal individuals has required the response of the CCPD CNT and SWAT team. Some of these incidents have involved individuals who used marijuana or other drugs while other events also were attributed to the dramatic increase of crime. (AreaVibes)

CCPD Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) Makeup

The CCPD CNT is comprised of six members and supervised by a non-operational team leader. The officers on the team also are assigned to various sections of the police department, with CNT membership an ancillary duty.

Officers assigned to the CNT have all received a basic level of instruction in crisis negotiation. None of the team members have an advanced education in mental health, and no mental health professional is assigned to the team. Two of the CNT members have more than three years of experience on the team. The remaining four members only possess one year of experience each. (ANNEX C)

An interesting trend that the CNT has lately experienced is the frequency with which the team is requested. In 2015, the CNT was called out 16 times, and those numbers have increased each year. As of mid-August 2018, the team has been requested 23 times — a 44% increase since 2015 — with four months of the year remaining. (ANNEX B)


Mental Health Professional as Part of the CNT

As previously mentioned, increased marijuana use is suspected of causing mental health issues. But chronic marijuana usage is not the only mental health concern. According to an article published in Psychiatric Times, nearly 50% of all suspects involved in a police hostage/barricade situation suffer from a form of mental illness. (Feldman)

To further illustrate the prevalence of mentally ill criminals, one must look no further than jail and prison populations. In a June 2017 article published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 26% of jail inmates “met the threshold for serious psychological distress” in the preceding 30 days. (Bronson) Even more alarming was a report from Kaiser Health News indicating “In state prisons, 73% of women and 55% of men have at least one mental health problem.” (Varney)

The documented pervasiveness of suspects suffering from a mental health issue with which hostage and crisis negotiators are forced to deal, coupled with the lack of advanced mental health education by any CNT member, should cause CCPD leadership to explore adding a mental health professional to the CNT.

Data on CNTs currently utilizing mental health professionals on their teams are limited. An article published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law in 1993 included details from a survey of 300 law enforcement agencies. The survey reported that 39% of those agencies used a mental health professional as part of their CNT. Given the passage of 25 years since this publication and the documented prevalence of suspects with mental health issues, it stands to reason that the percentage of mental health professionals included on CNTs is now much higher.

The documented pervasiveness of suspects suffering from a mental health issue with which hostage and crisis negotiators are forced to deal, coupled with the lack of advanced mental health education by any CNT member, should cause CCPD leadership to explore adding a mental health professional to the CNT. ”

Roles & Best Practices for CNT-Assigned Mental Health Professionals

The National Council of Negotiation Associations was established in 2001 and is widely considered to be one of the leading authorities on best practices related to hostage / crisis negotiations. Part of its mission statement is “to provide a collective voice on a national level regarding crisis negotiations.” (NCNA) In its “Recommended Guidelines and Policies,” the organization states that “Negotiation teams should consider establishing a consultative relationship with a mental health professional(s).” (NCNA)

In researching various publications, websites, and best practices, the general consensus is that the mental health professional assigned to the CNT does not conduct the negotiation. (Fagan) If they are not actively negotiating, what function does the mental health professional serve?

The strength of mental health professionals lays not in what they say to the suspect but in the support they provide to the CNT. Licensed professionals are used to educate CNTs on suspects’ potential mental health conditions and to provide strategies that CNTs can utilize to help bring incidents to peaceful resolutions. They also have the ability to access medical records, including mental health records, that HIPPA prevents police from accessing.

In addition to providing communication ideas, these professionals can provide assessments on suspects’ potential risk for violence or suicide. They also can help monitor the CNT members’ stress levels and give a critical-incident stress debriefing at the conclusion of the event. (Young) Another tremendous benefit of having a mental health professional assigned to the CNT is that their expertise and perceived neutrality is valuable should the negotiation turn negative or result in an officer-involved shooting. When such an incident is publicly reviewed, the presence of a licensed professional to offer an expert opinion is often given more consideration by the general public over statements made by police spokespeople.

Mental Health Professional Salaries

Some mental health professionals may consider serving as a consultant for a police department on a pro bono basis. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has used four different psychologists as consultants on their CNT for more than 10 years. None of them charged for their services. Each indicated that the experience and exposure they received by donating their time on these callouts was a personal and professional benefit.

In the event a mental health professional, whether a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), can not be located on a pro bono basis, the salaries for local psychologists in the area were examined. A review of three major organizations revealed the average hourly rate currently is $43.70. (ANNEX D) This is less than the overtime callout rate of an event CCPD CNT member.

Possible Solutions

Based upon the research obtained in this study the consideration for adding a mental health professional to the CCPD CNT should be reviewed. Three possible solutions will be discussed.

Option I: Maintain the status quo.

Pros:

  • No changes are necessary.
  • No impact is made to the budget.
  • No changes to the team structure are needed.

Cons:

  • Prevents the addition of a licensed mental health professional.
  • Inhibits the professionalism of the CNT.
  • Increases the potential for agency liability.

Costs:

  • No additional cost to the department.

Option II:  Attempt to locate a psychologist or LCSW who is willing to provide pro bono services for the CCPD CNT. They would respond to callouts, provide consultation, and assist the team with training.

Pros:

  • The addition of a licensed mental health professional would add to the resources available to the team, enhance the team’s professionalism, and increase the team’s credibility.
  • Receiving pro bono services would allow for the addition of the licensed professional without the agency spending money.
  • The mental health professional can provide needed training and monitor CNT members, without the agency paying additional funds.

Cons:

  • The number of mental health professionals willing to provide services for free will certainly be lower than those who have the desire to be paid.
  • Many times, the adage “you get what you pay for” is sound advice. To obtain the services of quality mental health professionals will likely result in paying a fee for their services.
  • By simply advertising for pro bono work, often “beggars cannot be choosers”, as we can only select from those who apply.

Costs:

  • No additional cost to the department.

Option III: Advertise the position on several professional websites, including Indeed.com.

Pros:

  • The pool of prospective mental health professionals interested in the position will expand.
  • By making the mental health professional a paid consultant, the agency has more control of their activities at the scene.
  • The addition of a licensed professional would add to the resources available to the team, to its professionalism, and to its credibility.
  • A mental health professional can provide needed training and monitor CNT members, details of which can be written into a contract.

Cons:

  • An added expense to the police department.
  • Potential of the public viewing the mental health consultant as a police employee.

Costs:

  • This option is the only one which would impact the agency’s budget. With the average hourly rate for Denver, CO, psychologists at $43.70, it would be reasonable to advertise the position to start at $50 per hour. With the average time of a callout being four hours, it would equate to $200 per callout to add the mental health professional to the team.
Conclusion

Based upon the research presented in this study, it is in the best interest of the CCPD to advertise and recruit for a mental health professional for the CNT. This study has presented three possible alternatives for consideration. Option 1 is to maintain the status quo. This alternative will not address any of the issues facing the CCPD CNT nor will it allow for the team to receive the documented benefits. Option 2 is to attempt to locate a mental health professional who is willing to serve as a pro bono consultant. This is a viable option as it has worked for other agencies. The difficulty with Option 2 is that it limits the number of prospective candidates. Given the importance of this role, along with the relatively low cost involved ($50 per hour), Option 3 provides for more, and potentially better, candidates.

Option 3 is the best option for the CCPD. Although it has associated costs, it allows for the position to be advertised, opening it up to more candidates. The costs associated with the position are relatively low:

$50 per hour x 4-hours per average callout = $200.

$200 per callout x 30 callouts = $6,000 per year.

Recommendation

The implementation of Option 3 will allow for the addition of a mental health professional to be added as a paid consultant to the CCPD CNT. The addition of this position will increase the resources available to CNT members and increase the professionalism and credibility of the team. A proposed implementation plan has been included. (Annex E) §

Sources:
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