By Karen Stokes
The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office is partnering with the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Department (BHD) to create an alternative to emergency detentions or arrests for individuals suffering from mental health issues.
The partnership started with a series of conversations between Sheriff Earnell Lucas and the Behavioral Health Department Director Mike Lappen.
“We agreed then that it certainly has merits but given all the challenges that I faced coming in the door here at the sheriff’s office, it was not one we could take on right away in 2019,” Lucas said. “As we moved into 2020 and certainly with all of the impact of COVID and even the months of protests after the horrific death of George Floyd, the conversations began again on how we can do something to find alternatives to emergency detention and/or arrest in those situations where individuals are suffering from mental health crises and the conversation led to the decision to launch this partnership.”
The Crisis Assessment and Response Team (CART) program is a partnership between law enforcement officers and the behavioral health community, taking their collective experiences to respond to calls for mental health issues.
“When CART engages with individuals in need of supportive services/resources/crisis intervention, clinicians such as myself provide mental health assessments to determine the best course of action,” Enjoli Varnado, MS, LPC-IT, C.A.R.T clinician, said.
The Milwaukee County Mental Health Board allocated $500,000 for the creation of this new program.
Lucas explained that the $500,000 will cover the cost of the deputies. Five deputies will be allocated, starting with three in 2020 and then an additional two in 2021, to work in partnership with clinicians and undergo training in various areas including crises and de-escalating, compassionate communications and other areas.
“CART aims to provide dignified and culturally competent services to all in need, recognizing the stigma of mental health in the African American Community, especially when an individual may be experiencing a first (psychological) break,” Varnado said. “CART aims to decrease the possibility of use of force and injuries to officers, consumers and the community.
“We also advocate for citizens we serve by linking them to mental health services to help reduce homelessness, reduce victimization, reduce substance abuse and minimize contact with law enforcement and utilization of emergency services.”
A similar program is currently in place between the BHD and the Milwaukee Police Department and another program with the West Allis Police Department.
“We can build upon these programs and hope to expand it throughout Milwaukee County,” Lucas said. “I’m hopeful that the program can have a very positive effect in the African American community, certainly as one who has seen and knows of mental health challenges in my own family, also in our community. This partnership is just so urgent.”
Lucas continued, “I’m hoping it has a profound impact changing the course in the lives of the people in the African American community and throughout Milwaukee County. I hope in the future that the need is less. That’s my goal for the success of this program.