The new mental health unit of the Overland Park Police Department will make its debut next year with toned-down uniforms, plain black vehicles and a therapy dog — all intended to keep anxiety levels down when responders go on a mental health call.
Earlier this month, Police Chief Frank Donchez gave the city council’s public safety committee an early look at what to expect when operations begin.
The new section of the police department is being created partly with funds from a one-mill property tax increase approved this year. Another $232,000 will come from a federal Community Oriented Policing grant to be used for crisis intervention training.
The new unit of twelve officers will work with co-responders from the Johnson County Mental Health Department to deal with calls where mental health may be an issue.
Donchez dubbed the new unit OPCAT, for Overland Park Crisis Action Team. Its logo will be a stylized drawing of a lion and shield.
The unit will dispatch crisis-intervention trained officers on the call, most of whom have specialties in dealing with youth, homelessness, the elderly, veterans and traumatic brain injury among other things.
“Expanding our co-responder program will increase the trauma-informed response our citizens are demanding,” Donchez said.
Toned-down uniforms, therapy dog
Calm is a theme running through how the unit will look to the public.
There will be no bold lettering on the backs of uniforms or cars saying, “POLICE.” Instead, officers will wear brown pants and black shirts with their unit logo and badge embroidered on.
Officers will also have a plain jacket with a flap on the back that can be opened to reveal police lettering if the officer needs it for a different kind of call.
The unit’s vehicles will be plain black and “less police-car looking,” Donchez said.
The department also plans to get a dog as part of a recommendation to look after the mental health needs of the responders themselves.
The dog, a lab mix, will come from K9s for Freedom and Independence in Collinsville, Tex., a non-profit specializing in dogs trained for the purpose of meeting the mental health needs of first responders.
Donchez said the dog could also be useful in victim assistance and interviews with traumatized children as well as public events, since regular K9s are not as approachable. A dog can help in communication with someone in a mental health crisis, he said.
“This, I think, is going to be a great addition to the unit,” Donchez said of the dog. “It will integrate perfectly with the mission theses officers will be doing.”
Other law enforcement offices that use or have applied for this type of dog are the county sheriff, Shawnee police, Independence, Mo., and Clay County sheriff, he said.
Recruiting for the new unit
So far recruiting has gone well for the new unit, with the twelve spots already filled from 22 who applied within the department, Donchez told the city council committee.
But the unit probably will not be fully staffed right away, since the positions of those twelve will have to be back-filled.
The mental health unit is the city’s answer to residents’ pleas for a better response when someone is in crisis.
The catalyst was the 2018 fatal police shooting of teenager John Albers during a call to check on his well-being. In the wake of that tragedy, his parents, Sheila and Steve Albers, called for better mental health training and more transparency from the police department.
The city council then formed a mental health task force, which met for several months before issuing recommendations for more responders better trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation and for mental health support for the responders.
The council implementation comes with the tax rate increase to pay for it.
Donchez said there will also be a smaller task force that will meet quarterly to oversee progress and address issues as they come up.
“This looks awesome to me,” said Councilmember Paul Lyons, chair of the committee. “I think this is even better than I imagined.”