MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WKRN) — Almost one year ago, the Murfreesboro Police Department (MPD) decided to take a new approach to mental health crises by adding its first mental health co-responder.

The program in partnership with the Volunteer Behavioral Health Care System (VBHCS) was officially launched Feb. 8, 2022, when Mental Health Specialist Heather Noulis began teaming up with Murfreesboro CIT Instructor and Officer Quentin Peeler to respond to calls.

Now, after more than 280 mental health interactions, the MPD said the partnership is “bridging the gap between the community and police,” resulting in fewer use of force incidents and building trust in the community.

“What we’ve seen a lot of is officers on scene that in the past may have had the outcome in arrest, and now they’re diverting it more toward us because they recognize the mental health need far outweighs the need of pursuing criminal charges against somebody,” Peeler said.

To date, 23 people have been diverted from incarceration to treatment-based alternatives, according to the MPD. Only six of the 280-plus people police have interacted with have been arrested, most of whom Peeler said had prior warrants.

(Photo: WKRN)

How the program works

Peeler and Noulis ride together from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. During that time, they screen calls coming into dispatch, looking for any situations that may require a mental health co-responder.

However, not all situations are clear cut. That’s where additional mental health training for officers comes into play.

All Murfreesboro officers receive at least eight hours of training on how to respond to and identify mental health incidents. As of January, about 80 officers had elected to receive an additional 40 hours of crisis intervention training (CIT).

“The thought process behind that is we’re going to get people that are interested in it to come do it,” Peeler said. “Because then we start seeing a lot of officers there that are very interested in the mental health side of law enforcement.”

While some calls may not be dispatched as mental health incidents, officers who recognize underlying issues can request a co-response team. Once the scene is deemed safe, Noulis steps out in a bulletproof vest with bold letters identifying her as a mental health co-responder.

“At which point Heather will do an evaluation of them on scene if it meets the standards for it,” Peeler said. “She’ll go through her questionnaire; we’ll try to get a good base line of where they’re at. Are we looking at a more extreme crisis or are we looking at somebody that just needs access to resources?”

Over the past year, about 29% of mental health calls were for individuals experiencing psychosis, another 29% were for people who had expressed suicidal thoughts and 12% were for people experiencing depression or anxiety, according to the MPD.

‘A huge de-escalation tool’

While every situation is different, Noulis said the ideal outcome is typically outpatient treatment. Some “extreme cases” require involuntary committal to a treatment center, and in other situations, simple deep breathing techniques can quickly de-escalate a crisis.

“We’ve seen situations go from 100 down to 20 just from me sitting there and taking those extra few minutes and just breathing with them,” Noulis said. “It’s the little things like that.”

Murfreesboro Officer Quentin Peeler, left, and Mental Health Co-responder Heather Noulis, right. (Photo: WKRN)

According to the MPD, at least 65 of the 280 people police have interacted with would have been unnecessarily taken to an emergency room for psychiatric evaluation if it wasn’t for the mental health responders and CIT officers’ ability to intervene.

In the beginning, Noulis said she and Peeler were responding to many calls that involved the same people, but since the program has rolled out, that “revolving door has been closing.”

“We are seeing more new faces, and we’re not seeing those repeat individuals because they’re following up with their treatment, they got the treatment they were kind of brushing under the rug for a while, which is a positive of the program,” she said.

After a full year, Peeler said trust in the MPD’s response to mental health calls has also grown. Many 911 callers now specifically request the co-response team or CIT officers. Peeler said simply having non-police personnel on scene can help put the caller at ease.

“Sometimes mental health consumers may have a fear of law enforcement or may have a fear of a police officer being on scene because of their mental health or past experiences with police,” Peeler said. “Having non-police personnel on scene can be a huge de-escalation tool.”

Program continues to expand

Due to the program’s success, two additional mental health co-responders were added to the team in later October. Sydnee Kucenski-Land, a clinician with VBHCS, is responding to calls with CIT officers from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday.

While Kevyn Wilson, a licensed master social worker, is serving on MPD’s Homeless Outreach Support Team (HOST) as a co-response specialist. The City of Murfreesboro, MPD and VBHCS funded the new positions through a $500,000 American Rescue Plan Act award.

“The police department has been impacted, the community has been impacted, everybody has grown since this program has been implemented and we’ve only grown in a positive direction,” Peeler said. “It’s all been positive outcomes.”

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As one of the most common calls police respond to, Peeler said he believes mental health co-responders serve a great value in policing. He hopes to continue to see the program grow, not only in Murfreesboro, but at other police departments across the nation.

“It’s still a massive shift and change in policing that’s coming from mental health programs like this,” he said. “We have so much still to learn. We have so much still to do and build on and grow on. I think I speak for both of us when I say we’re excited to see how this program continues to take off and grow and expand through the coming years.”