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Law Enforcement Response to Mental Health Needs: How Do We Measure Improvement?

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Both law enforcement and mental health advocates have long identified issues with how individuals with mental health and substance use needs are served. Sometimes called “social workers of last resort,” law enforcement officers are often tasked with responding to mental health- or substance use-related incidents and crises. However, law enforcement agencies are not designed to provide mental health or substance use services. To address this issue, several new initiatives in Minnesota—including in Dakota County, Saint Paul, and Woodbury—aim to better serve individuals with these needs, often by integrating a mental health provider into law enforcement departments.

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How do we know collaborations between law enforcement and social services work?

To answer this question, Wilder Research and the East Metro Crisis Alliance convened several law enforcement and county agencies that have implemented or plan to implement initiatives to better serve individuals with mental health and substance use needs. We used input from these agencies to develop an evaluation framework that similar programs can use to evaluate their efforts, identifying indicators that could help assess whether initiatives are effective.

Does the program increase access or engagement with existing services?

One of the most important indicators of impact is whether individuals served are ultimately connected with resources outside of the criminal legal system. Ensuring access and encouraging engagement with not only mental health-specific supports but also housing, food, or other resources may encourage stability and prevent future crises. Programs may want to answer the following questions when assessing impact:

  • Are individuals engaging with mental health providers or case managers more often?
  • Are individuals adhering more closely to their treatment plan?
  • Are individuals receiving services they haven’t received in the past?
  • Has awareness of available services increased?

Does the program divert individuals from the criminal legal system and emergency departments?

Law enforcement agencies spend a significant amount of time addressing incidents involving individuals with mental health and substance use needs, often focusing their efforts on a small group of individuals with high levels of repeat encounters. Additionally, the outcomes of these encounters can involve emergency departments, inpatient psychiatric facilities, jails, and ongoing criminal legal system involvement, all of which can cause further harm.

By connecting individuals with services that address their needs, they may be less likely to experience future crises and to call 911 or otherwise encounter law enforcement. Not only are people better served, but improved intervention can also reduce patrol officer time and save costs related to jailings, hospitalizations, emergency department visits, and hospital transports. Programs may want to ask:

  • Have diversions from the criminal legal system increased?
  • Have emergency department visits and hospital transports declined?
  • Have the costs associated with arrests and hospital transports declined?
  • For individuals with a history of repeat calls to or interactions with law enforcement, have these calls and encounters declined?

Are individuals satisfied with the services they receive?

While collecting data from those served may be more resource-intensive than tracking other data, it is crucial to understanding the perceptions of those served. Programs may wish to survey individuals served (or alternatively, a family member or caretaker) to ensure they are providing services that are helpful and valuable through the following questions:

  • How satisfied are individuals with the services they received?
  • How do individuals perceive program staff?
  • Have individuals experienced improvements in their mental health and overall well-being?

Evaluation efforts should be customized and ongoing

Different agencies have different strengths and needs, and they vary by capacity, local resources and geography. Moreover, programs often operate differently, with some focused on providing real-time responses to 911 calls, and others focused on providing follow-up support after an encounter with law enforcement. Evaluation efforts should be customized, aimed at assessing progress toward each individual program’s goals. Similarly, programs should integrate evaluation throughout their program’s lifespan, to ensure they continue to meet the needs of those served. Demonstrating impact is often crucial to establishing a program’s value to current or potential funders, underscoring the importance of meaningful and relevant evaluation.

Improvements in our mental health system are still needed

While these initiatives have the potential to better meet the needs of individuals with mental health and substance use issues, they rely on connecting individuals to existing services. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s mental health and substance use system currently lacks the capacity to meet the current demand for services, much less the needs of all Minnesotans with mental health concerns. In 2019, seven Minnesota counties had no mental health care providers at all. To ensure individuals fully benefit from these new collaborative initiatives, Minnesota needs to increase the availability of services and improve access to culturally meaningful care across the state.

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