County leaders see growing need for mental health co-responders working with police

Johnson County Mental Health Center Director Tim DeWeese said Johnson County is seeing more calls to police departments for people experiencing mental health problems.

The number of mental health-related 911 calls continues to climb in northeast Johnson County. And to meet that growing need, Johnson County Mental Health is deploying a second mental health co-responder to assist law enforcement agencies in the Shawnee Mission area.

This second staff member will split focus on assisting the police departments of Prairie Village and Leawood. The existing northeast area co-responder will continue responding to mental health-related calls across five police jurisdictions and eight other cities in northeast Johnson County.

Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, said the need for mental health co-responders is “definitely there,” as the data shows.

“Right now, what’s happening is that what we’ve found is that the one co-responder for all of those cities and those seven police departments — to share one co-responder — it wasn’t enough,” DeWeese said.

DeWeese said the sheriff’s department has also budgeted and planned for an additional co-responder to cover the unincorporated parts of the county, such as the areas surrounding Gardner, DeSoto and Edgerton.

The county is looking for candidates for the two additional co-responder positions. DeWeese said they hope to have the new staff members ready by March.

Leawood police chief Troy Rettig said the increase in mental health-related calls in Leawood is consistent with increases seen regionally and nationwide.

“As that has occurred, that’s where you see this need being addressed, at least in Johnson County, by these co-responder positions,” Rettig said. “There’s definitely been an increase in calls that have a mental health component.

“It’s a great asset for us to have. The accessibility did nothing but promote our officers’ comfort and knowledge in dealing with mental health.”

DeWeese added that the department has been in talks with AdventHealth Shawnee Mission about sharing some of the costs of the northeast area co-responder.

Reduction of stigma surrounding mental illness could play a factor in increased call volume

The new co-responder will assist police in Leawood and Prairie Village.

Johnson County Mental Health first began deploying a mental health co-responder to law enforcement agencies in the northeast Johnson County in 2017. That staff member, known as the northeast co-responder, assists with mental health-related calls in 10 cities and seven police departments within the I-435 loop, covering Fairway, Leawood, Merriam, Mission, Mission Hills, Mission Woods, Prairie Village, Roeland Park, Westwood and Westwood Hills.

Shawnee and Lenexa first joined the system in July 2016 by sharing their own co-responder in July 2016. The two cities have had their own full-time co-responder since January 2018.

From 2016 to 2017 alone, mental health co-responders countywide had a 448 percent increase in the number of calls with which they assisted law enforcement agencies —  from 1,675 in 2016 to 9,193 in 2017.

Besides that, mental health-related calls tend to have “the most complexity” and often take more time for police to handle than other calls, DeWeese said. As such, having a mental health co-responder has helped law enforcement agencies decrease the amount of time spent and cost savings in personnel time on those types of calls, he added.
Lenexa is in the process of requesting an additional co-responder from the county.

Dawn Layman, Lenexa deputy police chief, said that in 2018, the Lenexa Police Department responded to more than 900 mental health-related calls — about 50 more than in 2017.

The reduction in stigma surrounding mental illness could be contributing to the increase in mental health-related calls, DeWeese said, citing recent uptick in calls to the center’s crisis hotline. However, he thinks there’s still “a long way to go” to get people the assistance they need.

“I think people are more willing to reach out for help today than they were, say, even five years ago,” DeWeese said.

To date, Johnson County Mental Health employs seven co-responders countywide to respond to 11 police jurisdictions and 14 cities, including two who exclusively cover Overland Park and two others covering Olathe.

Each co-responder costs roughly $140,000; $100,000 of personnel costs are absorbed by each participating city and law enforcement agency, DeWeese said. Overhead costs of $40,000 per staff member are covered by Johnson County Mental Health.

In addition to providing mental health co-responders, Johnson County also trains local law enforcement officers on crisis intervention and mental health first aid, DeWeese said.