When Lakewood Police agents hit the streets, they are now equipped with an innovative tool to handle some of their most challenging calls, but it has nothing to do with what is strapped to their waists. It’s a trained mental health professional riding alongside them in the patrol car or available to respond to a call.

Through a collaboration with the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the Police Department is using this pioneering approach to allow agents to better serve residents by connecting those with mental illness directly with resources and support during their time of crisis.

The initiative improves the department’s ability to respond appropriately, says Police Chief Daniel McCasky, because police agents are not trained mental health professionals. “It is a relief to have someone with a professional background give an opinion on how to help an individual or family where the answer is not clear-cut,” he says. It’s a collaboration that also “helps build trust between citizens and the Police Department.”

Courtney Gaston, a Jefferson Center mental health case manager now placed within the City’s Police Department, agrees. She notes that she can offer these residents information about available services “with a more long-term solution and can empower them to begin to start treating the symptoms, which may have led to police involvement in the past.”

Gaston puts her knowledge and skills at the disposal of the agents by going on ride-alongs, providing phone support and following up on referrals from agents for residents “they believe may need additional assistance and follow-up.” Agents can also call Gaston to the scene to assist with someone who is showing signs of mental illness.

The inspiration for Lakewood’s initiative came from an effective partnership between the Jefferson Center and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which has had two mental health caseworkers placed in its patrol division since October 2014.

McCasky is hopeful to duplicate the Sheriff’s Office successes, and he highlights potential benefits for Lakewood, the police and the public. “The intended outcomes for the program are to reduce time on calls involving persons with behavioral health issues, reduce the number of repeat calls, direct citizens to resources to help them in their time of need and divert people away from the justice system if appropriate,” he explains.

The collaboration is also about bridging gaps “between law enforcement and the mental health system” Gaston notes, as both the police and the Jefferson Center strive to maintain a healthy and safe community.

Gaston says one of the rewards of this new initiative is empowering residents “to find the resources they need but didn’t know existed.” The impact on the residents is significant “when they find out that police officers asked a social worker to follow up because that officer was concerned about the person’s well-being and wanted to do more to help,” she says.

Given that calls involving behavioral health are on the rise in all jurisdictions, positive reactions like these are exactly the type of communitywide impact this program aims to achieve, McCasky says.

“Having professional mental health workers on-site and working directly with our agents shows the dedication of both agencies to the mental well-being of its citizens,” he adds.