Police saving lives unseen: Behind the scenes in mental health responses

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – For every police case that leads to criminal charges, there are many others that never make the news.

Like a recent scene in Maryland Heights that shut down an entire street but did not lead to criminal charges.

Maryland Height Police Lt. Rich Wagner said, “We were able to get the area cleared and allow that individual to come down on his own.”

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Lt. Wagner says Crisis Intervention Team training, also known as CIT, prevented a possible tragedy.

“Social work is a part of our trade,” Wagner added.

There are other examples, like this past Tuesday, when FOX 2 captured video of a St. Charles Police negotiation with a man in a Walgreens parking lot. It also ended peacefully, with no criminal charges.

Last year, we featured a dramatic North County scene in which a woman stole a police car and crashed it.

You could hear officers on the bodycam footage we obtained say, “It could’ve been worse. She could have hit somebody – silver lining.”

That suspect is now in mental health court, as CIT-trained officers de-escalated under extreme circumstances.

In another clip on the body cam footage, you could hear a witness to the cop car crash ask, “Is she going to jail for a long time!?” The officer responded, “No, she’s got something else going on.”

Police say frequently they’re encountering people with something else going on.

Lt. Wagner said, “If you take into account that one in three adults in the United States will have a mental health challenge of some type, on any given day, the chances are very high.”

Which is why more officers are training – not only CIT training – which is coordinated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – but also through a program called Mental Health First Aid.

CIT Coordinator and St. Louis County Sgt. Patrick Hokamp said, “We want to keep those in crisis out of the justice system.”

He added, “CIT-trained officers use force 40% less than non-CIT-trained officers.”

Sgt. Hokamp helped push through the first-of-its-kind program in the nation in which Missouri law enforcement can share a crisis reporting database.

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He explained, “Say somebody from Kansas City comes to a St. Louis Cardinal’s game. They’re in crisis. An officer comes into contact with that person, they can check the CIT reporting system, see what’s been going on in the past with this individual, and learn about their support members.”

Progress is measured in cases like the suspect in that cop car crash. She’s halfway through mental health court. While I was writing this report, the woman’s relative told me, “She is very grateful to be given an opportunity to participate in a program that is helping get her life back on track. She is currently in a good place mentally and is seeking employment.”

It’s a hopeful message we will follow up on when the defendant completes mental health court.

Remember, if you’re in crisis, someone is available immediately if you call or message 988. Just those three numbers (988) will connect you to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.


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