Overland Park wants to expand mental health staff and training for police — and may need to raise taxes to do it

The Overland Park City Council gave its unanimous support to set of broad-ranging recommendations from the city's Mental Health Task Force Monday, that include add more than a dozen mental health interventionists and co-responders to the city's police force. File photo.

An ambitious set of recommendations to bulk up Overland Park’s mental health resources was unanimously accepted by the city council Monday night.

The list includes several new staff positions for crisis intervention and co-responders, as well as mental health counselors.

The vote now means city staff will begin to work some of the recommendations, which came from the city’s Mental Health Task Force, into the upcoming budget that will be proposed in about three weeks.

No price tag or timeline was included with the recommendations, but it could involve a substantial commitment of resources, said City Manager Bill Ebel.

Councilmember Paul Lyons went further.

“I fully expect when the city manager comes to the council in a few weeks with a proposed budget for 2022 that it’s probably going to include a property tax increase,” that would need to cover mental health measures plus other needs for cyber security and the city’s new fire station, Lyons said.

But he added that he thinks the public will be understanding and supportive.

“We need to start communicating to the public that’s a strong possibility that’s going to happen,” he said.

Adding staff and training for police

The council was enthusiastic in its support of the recommendations, praising the months of work by the special mental health task force that was convened partly in response to lingering questions over the police shooting of teenager John Albers during a welfare check in 2018.

Councilmember Chris Newlin, who chaired the task force, noted that some positive changes have already happened.

For instance, the police department policy now forbids shooting into moving vehicles with some exceptions.

But the task force’s recommendations also include greatly expanding the city’s support for mental health training and services.

If funding is approved, the Overland Park Police Department would have a special unit of 11 plain-clothes crisis intervention coordinators and seven co-responders who would provide expertise on police calls where mental health is an issue.

That would be a major increase from current staffing, which is two co-responders, one full-time crisis intervention team coordinator and one sergeant who also supervises the Shawnee Mission School District’s school resource officer program.

The task force said the increase is needed because only about one-fifth of the 10,000 mental health calls in the past three years received crisis intervention response, according to the task force’s report.

Newlin said current staffing provides coverage for only two hours per day — from 8 to 10 p.m. — seven days a week, when the need is for 24/7 coverage.

Sheila Albers, John Albers’ mother, has pressed the city for more transparency and mental health crisis training in the years since her son’s killing.

After Monday’s vote, she said that getting crisis training is still going to be slow going because Johnson County doesn’t have enough staff to meet the demand for such training.

She said only about 50 law enforcement officers will be trained by the county this year and not all will be from Overland Park.

“At this rate it will be at least three years before we get all of OPPD trained,” she said.

Other recommendations

Other notable recommendations from the task force included the addition of a full-time victim advocate position, trauma-informed care training and the addition of staff counselors for first responders’ mental health needs.

The task force envisioned two full-time clinicians each for the police and fire departments to be available 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition, the first responders would have a peer support team and professional quality of life assessment evaluations at least twice a year.

“Firefighters and police see tragic situations on a regular basis,” Newlin said. “We want to make sure first responders are getting all the help they need so they can continue to do their jobs.”

The victim advocate would make permanent a position that began in 2019 with a three-year federal grant. The task force recommended that program eventually be expanded to three positions.

Trauma-informed care is a method of training that recognizes that certain behaviors may stem from past trauma.

The task force also recommended that mental health become the subject of a permanent council committee, that an accessible city mental health website be maintained and that Overland Park officials work with other jurisdictions to provide mental health resources and support the court mental health diversion program.

Councilmembers were emphatic in their support for the recommendations.

“I hope you believe we don’t mess around with task forces in Overland Park just to do something and set it upon the shelf,” Lyons said.

Mayor Carl Gerlach concurred.

“I think this is a great start and I think we have a long ways to go.”