Pilot program pairs New Jersey state troopers with mental health experts

BRIDGETON – The state Attorney General’s Office has launched a pilot program intended to reduce “unacceptable” levels of police force being used against people with mental illness or behavioral problems.

The ARRIVE Together program will pair a State Police trooper and a mental health expert for joint responses to 911 calls involving people in crisis.

In announcing its initiative, the Attorney General’s Office noted two-thirds of every use of force by police in New Jersey — and half of fatal police encounters — involve persons with mental illness or under the influence.

The program “is a recognition that these numbers are unacceptable, and a step towards improving those outcomes,” the agency said in a statement.

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“We need to respond to our community members in crisis with clinicians and compassion,” said Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck.

New Jersey State Police

“And we need to divert individuals with mental illness away from the criminal justice system,” he said.

The pilot program will operate from State Police stations in Bridgeton and Port Norris, where a trooper and a certified mental health screener would share an eight-hour shift.

“State Police is the primary law enforcement agency in much of Cumberland County,” noted a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. “We also wanted to draw attention to the need for mental health services in that part of the state.”

The “co-responders” would handle calls for mental health incidents, confused or disoriented persons, welfare checks, and suicide watch, the statement said.

The mental health screener would take the lead at the response site, but would not leave the vehicle until the trooper determines the scene is safe.

“The trooper will be present if any safety risk arises during a screening, in which case the screener would step back and let the trooper take the lead,” the spokesman said.

He noted the screeners, from Cumberland County’s Guidance Center, already have experience in “unstructured settings” as they work in the community without police being present.

Elizabeth Meenan, the Guidance Center's executive director, said her organization is “excited” to take part “in the effort to improve outcomes for community members experiencing psychiatric distress.”

Dr. Charles F. Boyer, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice praised the program as “a human-focused initiative.”

“For far too long, law enforcement has been the primary mental health first responder in Black communities,” Boyer said.

“Preventable police shootings show a lack of imagination we as a society have had in responding to mental health and substance use calls that put both the civilian and officer at risk,” he said”

Under traditional circumstances, a trooper can decide on their own whether a person should be sent to a hospital, the statement noted.

But the state Department of Human Service estimates only a third of “individuals in crisis who are transported to the emergency room actually require hospitalization,” it observed.

And when a trooper does request a mental health expert to come to a scene, the resulting wait could allow a situation to escalate, the Attorney General's Office added.

Under ARRIVE Together, the screener would be immediately available to determine “when someone should be evaluated for hospitalization and when that individual is able to remain in the community —particularly when connected to services to meet their needs,” the statement said.

“A police officer having the assistance of a mental health professional when called to a crisis promotes safety during the encounter and is a step towards long term well-being for the person in crisis,” observed Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae.

The Attorney General's Office also asserted the program will help officers “gain experience through close, on-the-job interaction with and feedback from screeners.”

The Rutgers School of Public Health will assess the pilot program in order to identify strengths and weaknesses.

As part of a broader effort to improve interactions with people in crisis, the Attorney General’s Office noted Tuesday it has prepared a reference card for use by police.

The double-sided card summarizes the types of disorders police may encounter, as well as symptoms and suggested responses.

It is being distributed to all 38,000 law enforcement officers in New Jersey.

Jim Walsh covers public safety, economic development and other beats for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal.

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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: New Jersey State Police, mental health experts will respond to 911 calls

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