Milford PD behavioral health unit underway

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MILFORD — The Milford Police Department has officially started its behavioral health unit.

Chief Kenneth Brown said the department plans to bring someone on part time in the coming days.

“We’re actually doing background on a clinician now, so if that all is OK, then we’ll bring them in on March 1,” the chief said.

He’s contracting the mental health professional through Partners in Public Safety Solutions Inc., a nonprofit run by Amy Kevis, a former New Castle County police officer who gave a presentation to City Council in November.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this anymore,” she said then of the mental health and substance abuse crises plaguing the nation and the state.

“I understand the challenges that law enforcement is dealing with these days in trying to figure out how to handle these folks and get them the best health they need,” Ms. Kevis said. “I think it would be helpful for the officers of Delaware to be part of the treatment continuum, in that they can refer people to treatment.”

The chief said he will look to Partners in Public Safety for guidance on getting the program off the ground.

“This is new to us. I’m reliant on them to give us a lot of guidance here,” he said. “The way I see it is they’ll come in and ride with the officers, really on a part-time basis right now.”

That would come out to roughly 25 hours a week.

“At some point, hopefully, we’ll move into a full-time status” if the program works well, the chief said.

He said the department will look to the community and its officers for feedback on how the program is going and if it should be continued or expanded. As of Monday morning, the chief said his officers had not officially been notified about the program’s impending commencement.

“I’m sure they’ve heard things here and there, but I haven’t officially told them yet,” he said. “This has moved so quickly that I just literally had a staff meeting where I told the staff that we’re going to need to do a department-wide meeting on Zoom this week to tell them because they don’t know about it.”

Vice Mayor Jason James, who has been instrumental in making the behavioral health unit a reality, said it will be greatly appreciated by the Milford community.

“Everybody nationwide, and in Milford, also, wants to elevate mental health issues,” he said.

“Even though some of the officers go through crisis-intervention training, they’re not behavioral health experts,” Vice Mayor James said. “Their focus is primarily on public safety and crime-fighting.”

He said that “the behavioral health specialist is that person who knows how to have those conversations.”

So far, Chief Brown said $20,000 from the police budget has been allocated to the behavioral health unit through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

For reference, the chief said his department spends $10,000 annually on the K-9 unit and $45,000 annually to train its officers.

One reason Chief Brown said he is eager to get the behavioral health unit underway is the upcoming construction of a new police station.

“We’re in the planning and blueprint phase for the new building, and we want to see what kind of space they will need,” he said.

Vice Mayor James said the new behavioral health specialist will be introduced to the community at a council meeting soon after he or she is officially hired.

Milford is not the only community downstate with a mental health unit. Both Smyrna and Georgetown have had programs like this for over a year.

“We are going into our second full year of our Guardian Program,” said Chief R.L. Hughes of the Georgetown Police Department.”

He said the department has three people working part-time who cover 40 hours a week.

“To be honest, I’d like to get more grant funding or more money to have them be at 80 hours a week,” the chief said.

“That program really comes in handy for us when people are in crisis,” he said. “We have clinicians here that can go with us to talk with the individuals so we can avoid an arrest or escalating a situation that can be deescalated.”

In Georgetown, these clinicians stand by in the station rather than riding around on calls.

“That was a part of the plan in the beginning, then this thing called COVID came along,” Chief Hughes said. “We didn’t want to put folks in the car that close for a period of time.”

This hasn’t been a problem, though.

“Because our jurisdiction is not that large, we’re only patrolling less than five square miles, we can get them quickly to a scene if we need to,” the chief said. He said that if an officer can get “the person (to) agree to come back, they can do their session right here in the police department.”

In December 2018, Smyrna launched its mental health program with a $47,000 federal grant from the Connections Community Support Programs. They hired Jim Deel, a mental health clinician.

“My tongue is my equipment, whether it’s talking people through something, asking questions to better understand the situation or de-escalating an incident,” he said in 2018.

“If (police) feel like there’s any potential for any kind of mental health or substance abuse concern, they usually bring me into that situation, and I more or less at that point take the lead on it,” he said.

While the Dover Police Department rejected local efforts to put something similar together in their jurisdiction under former Chief Marvin Mailey’s leadership, the department is now reconsidering it under Chief Thomas Johnson.

“A couple of years ago, Chief Mailey was presented the opportunity to have a social worker riding with the cops,” Dover City Councilman Ralph Taylor Jr., who was a Dover policeman for 20 years, said in October. “It appeared that there was some kind of disconnect between the law enforcement professionals, as well as the social professionals.”

But by October 2020, Chief Johnson was working closely with Ms. Kevis to try to bring a mental health expert to the state’s capitol.