Cowlitz County law enforcement agencies are proposing a county-wide “crisis coordination team” to help officers better respond to a growing number of calls for people experiencing mental health crisis, substance abuse and homelessness.

County commissioners Wednesday expressed initial support for the proposal to use the county’s mental health sales tax to partially fund a contract with a behavioral health service provider to place professionals in police departments. The county collects a one-tenth of 1% mental health sales tax that state law requires to be used for chemical dependency, mental health programs and therapeutic courts.

According to the agencies’ proposal, it’ll cost an estimated $403,000 annually for four masters-level providers to work with the sheriff’s office and police departments.

Longview Police Chief Robert Huhta and Kelso Police Chief Darr Kirk presented the plan to the commissioners during a workshop Wednesday.

“We are the officers, deputies out on the street responding first to many situations, and that coordination piece with our service providers is critical,” Huhta said. “Having the in-house mental health providers helps us establish rapport, not only with the officers, but with the citizens on the street that are in need — I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

In 2019, Longview police responded to an average of 12.4 crisis calls per day, estimated to be about half of all the crisis calls in Cowlitz County, according to the presentation. The calls often require multiple officers and take time to de-escalate and determine next steps, Kirk said.

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Police in 2019 brought more than 420 people to PeaceHealth St. John’s emergency department for evaluation, according to the presentation.

The mental health professionals would respond to crisis calls with officers to ensure a more “comprehensive approach and successful intervention,” according to the proposal. They would carry a caseload of those frequently contacted by law enforcement and help connect them with services, as well as provide training to officers.

The police agencies would provide office space, administrative support and guidance to the crisis team members.

According to the proposal, the agencies expect the team would better meet the needs of individuals in crisis, reduce police interactions with people they contact frequently, improve community safety, reduce the burden on first responders and the hospital emergency department and reduce jail and court use.

“I think the jail and the emergency room here in Cowlitz County receive the brunt of some of our problem-solving if you can even call it that,” Kirk said Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s effective. I think they’ll tell you there are people in jail right now they’ll tell you need to be in mental health court or somewhere else.”

The proposal is for the county to contract with a mental health provider for four masters-level mental health professionals, one each for the Sheriff’s Office, Longview and Kelso, and one to work with the three smaller police departments.

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Huhta also applied for a Trueblood Grant to hire a coordinator to oversee the four crisis team providers.

In addition to the joint proposal, the city of Longview approved funding in its 2021-2022 General Fund budget for the police department to contract two full-time, licensed mental health professionals. Huhta said the department will select a provider to present to the council in the next few weeks.

The police chiefs, sheriff, corrections department, Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue and PeaceHealth St. John sent the commissioners letters in support of the plan.

County Corrections Department Director Marin Fox said Wednesday some people end up in jail repeatedly, typically on a minor charge, because law enforcement doesn’t have another option for them.

“I think they try different options, but ultimately when left with no options they end up in jail,” Fox said. “It’s a frustrating loop, and I think this is a hopeful attempt to create a different outcome.”

Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Jurvakainen said Wednesday whether or not the system is set up to be this way, “the reality is they’re the ones first there trying to figure out what to do with an individual in a major crisis.” Jurvakainen said he’d like to see law enforcement have resources they need to get people in crisis where they need to be.

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Several mental health service providers Wednesday expressed support for the proposal to enhance existing services and crisis response.

Columbia Wellness interim CEO Drew McDaniel said he’s grateful to law enforcement for looking at opportunities to enhance outreach and engagement with individuals in crisis. Columbia Wellness offers crisis services, including a mobile crisis team that often responds to calls with police.

County Commissioner Dennis Weber said he supports the plan and the collaboration between agencies.

“This isn’t going to solve everything, but I think it’s going to certainly help our law enforcement officers with how they do their jobs,” he said. “I share your concern. We just can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing in the past, we’ve got to do something different.”