NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Mental health services became a big talking point yet again when a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper responding to a man sitting on the side of I-65 ended with the man being shot dead by several law enforcement officers. It came as a pilot program passed the halfway mark of its first year where Metro Nashville Police Officers get paired with clinicians when responding to mental health calls.

“We realize that Partners In Care enjoys a level of popularity that we did not anticipate,” said Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Mayor John Cooper Dia Cirillo during a stakeholders committee meeting for Partners in Care. “It is the right resource at the right time and certainly last week’s tragic incident demonstrates the importance of this work.”

The North and Hermitage precincts were selected for the pilot because of their high call volume related to mental health services. Each team has a master’s level clinician and a police officer who’s received specialized training in mental health, suicide prevention, and de-escalation.

“We’re showing that there’s definitely a need and that in both precincts there seems to be an equal need,” said Mental Health Cooperative Senior Vice President Amanda Bracht.

Metro’s Emergency Communications department has been a major part of this process because their dispatchers are taking the calls for service in the first place.

“Very rarely do we get a phone call from someone who is in a mental health crisis or experiencing a mental health emergency that the caller who is reporting these concerns is familiar with that person’s mental health history or they’re familiar with enough of that patient to say they’re having a mental health concern,” said Stephen Martini, Metro Emergency Communications Director. “Those incidents are reported to us in a variety of other ways whether its suspicious activity or suspicious behavior, intoxicated behavior, maybe somebody trespassing on the property and refusing to leave.”

They’ve dispatched a co-response team about 1,500 times for qualifying calls in the past six to seven months. Of those, about 800 did involve a mental health crisis and 30 resulted in arrests.

“There’s a high percentage of those call-outs that require what we call a full crisis assessment, meaning that the individual is at risk of harm to themselves or others based on their mental illness,” Bracht said. “And the teams have been able to get those people connected to care.”

When someone calls 911 dispatchers ask clarifying questions to determine whether or not to send a co-response team. That’s how officials said the officer-clinician teams respond most often, but fellow police officers call in for help as well.

“There are some calls that are coming in from other officers. They get to a scene. It wasn’t originally dispatched that way, and they recognize ‘Hey, this is a mental health issue,’ and they’re calling for the response team in their sector to come to assist them on the scene,” said Bracht. “We also have gotten good feedback from the officers who have been involved in the project about how beneficial it is to have a clinician on to pick up on things that may not have originally been dispatched as a potential mental health call. But once they’re there, the clinician says, wait a minute, I’m picking up on some issues, and let me help it intervene in the situation.”

Once the individual is addressed, a big part of the program is getting the necessary care, which can include hospitalization in an inpatient psychiatric facility, outpatient treatment, or connection to a crisis treatment center.

“Then there are some other calls with which the call response team may have intervened with somebody on Monday, they didn’t need hospitalization, but that team wanted to follow back up with them. And so on Wednesday of that week, they may say, Hey, I’m just gonna follow up on Johnny, who we saw on Monday and make sure that he or she is doing okay,” Bracht explained.

So far, leaders feel the program is showing signs of success.

“I think that’s first and foremost it’s removing barriers to people getting care and also trying to further decriminalize symptoms of mental illness, that the number of people who we’ve encountered who’ve been arrested in these who’ve had a corresponding counselor is still very, very low,” Bracht said. “I think we definitely want to continue to see that trend and that we’re able to deescalate situations in a way with which there’s there’s no harm to anyone.”

They’re now working with the health department to delve deeper into the data about what’s led to each person being in a behavioral health crisis such as whether they’re experiencing homelessness, a loss of their job/income, or other psychosocial stressors.

Partners in Care will now be expanded. They’re working on new services for the central precinct to start before the new fiscal year and additional resources elsewhere in the county. Stakeholders are also exploring a non-law enforcement model to complement this program.

“We have a lot of officers to train and I want people to understand, officers who volunteer for this program, they went through 40 hours of crisis intervention training provided by mental health co-op,” said Inspector David Imhoff in MNPD’s Office of Alternative Policing Strategies. “Our hope is we’re very close to being able to embed a mental health cooperative clinician at our academy to continue with training those officers.”

It’s a program that’s still in its pilot phase with stakeholders working on ways to improve it as events arise. Martini used the I-65 fatal police shooting of Landon Eastep as an example, although Partners in care was not involved in that incident.

“We have an incident that started with a request for backup by another police officer from a neighboring agency. That could be yet another opportunity for us to expand those codes that if we receive a request for backup from a neighboring agency requesting service that we could seek a mental health co response unit to respond to calls like this,” Martini explained.

Advocates for mental health services hope Nashville is experiencing a turning point in reducing stigma helping people in need.

“I’ve been working in this field for over 20 years in Nashville and this is the first time in my career where I’ve seen such energy and momentum from a variety of systems,” Bracht said. “So it’s not just being led by mental health. It’s not just criminal justice. It’s the whole system working together. And I’ve been really encouraged that we’re looking at it from a public health standpoint.”

We want to remind you that there is help available where you don’t have to go through 9-1-1. The Mental Health Cooperative’s crisis line is available 24 hours a day seven days a week. That number is 615-726-0125.