Mason criminologists aim to help police better handle mental health calls

By Buzz McClain and Jamie Rogers

Two George Mason University professors are working with police in rural Virginia to explore better ways to respond to mental health calls.

Roanoke County, located in western Virginia, has a relatively low crime rate compared with more populated areas, but police there handle more than 500 mental health calls each year.

If Roanoke Police respond to a mental health call and the person is a danger to themselves or others, police can take the person into emergency custody and have them hospitalized.

“The bigger problem is that police don’t have access to resources to help individuals who are in crisis, but don’t meet the level of being hospitalized,” said George Mason criminologist Charlotte Gill, who, along with Mason criminologist Sue-Ming Yang, is working with the department on the project.

“Our options are limited,” Roanoke police chief Howard Hall said. “We can either leave them to take care of things themselves or take them into custody. There is nothing in the middle.”

Police then end up responding to the same people over and over again, Gill said.

The goal of this project is to help the police connect these individuals with services they need, she said.

A three-year, $249,933 grant for the Mason research (the total grant is $627,482) from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a component of U.S. Department of Justice, will help them develop a randomized experiment to determine the effectiveness of connecting people to mental health services after initial contact with police.

During the experiment, police will continue to respond to mental health calls; officers come out of the police academy trained in crisis intervention, Gill said.

The difference is, some people will randomly be referred to Intercept Youth Services, a mental health service provider in Roanoke, Yang said.

People in serious crisis who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others will be taken into emergency custody and won’t be eligible for the experiment, she added.

Yang and Gill will research the progress of the calls and will develop best practices based on their conclusions.

Those conclusions could be used by other police forces around the country, not only in largely rural areas such as Roanoke but also in urban areas.

“Chief Hall realizes this is a big issue,” Yang said.  “He sees [the study] as an opportunity to help his officers do better.”

Mental health has a big impact on law enforcement, Hall said.

Roanoke Police spend more time on mental health calls—some 2 ½ hours for each—compared to 40 minutes or less they spend on other calls.