Shelley Postle, a Gainesville police officer, and MaKenzie Boyer, a mental health clinician, vividly remember the day they received a call about an unstable woman who had cut herself.
The woman’s friend told Postle and Boyer that she had broken a picture frame and used a large piece of glass to reopen a large wound on her forearm. When the duo arrived, she ran away still holding the piece of glass. Her arm was gaping from the cut as she laid down under a stairwell.
As the woman screamed, the duo, trained as part of a new program to respond to calls involving people battling mental illness, attempted to deescalate the situation, to no avail.
“There was nothing we could say at that point to calm her down because of her mental state,” Postle recalled recently.
When the woman held the piece of glass to her neck, Postle and another police officer on the scene immediately grabbed her arms and snatched it away.
Postle and Boyer, who works for Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, are only a call away for those who are battling mental illness and in an emotionally charged situation. In April 2018, the Gainesville Police Department and Meridian formed the city’s first co-responder program.
Co-responder teams consist of an officer and clinician trained in crisis intervention. A key program goal: helping ensure that people who simply need treatment don’t get arrested instead.
From the program’s inception in April 2018 to March 31, Postle and Boyer responded to 635 calls. The program has diverted 89 percent of the 583 individuals that the co-responders came in contact with from being arrested. These diversions saved taxpayers about $240,000.
“By them getting arrested and getting into the criminal justice system that way is just a vicious cycle,” Postle said. “They get out, and they’re not receiving treatment in jail, and then they’re coming out, committing the same crimes and then going back into jail.”
Boyer said the job has challenging and rewarding aspects.
“It’s sometimes hard to see people going through such difficult things all the time, but I think the best part of the job is the ability to get them somewhere where they can get through their struggles,” Boyer said.
Chip Skinner, a Gainesville city spokesman, said the success of the program continues to be monitored, and the program will be adjusted as areas that need improvement are identified.
According to Skinner and data from Meridian, the co-responder team has diverted 80 percent of individuals they contacted to mental-health outpatient treatment or voluntary inpatient treatment.
“The community as a whole applauds the program, as it helps individuals with mental health issues and deals with the issues those individuals are having without sending them to mental-health facilities or hospitals,” Skinner said.
Elena Johnson, 37, is operations director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) nonprofit organization in Gainesville. She said she hopes for more co-responder teams because they save taxpayer money, reduce arrests and help individuals get the help they need.
According to NAMI, nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women who are put into jail each year have a serious mental illness.
“The jail is not a hospital, and it’s not equipped to deal with people’s mental illness in the same way that a crisis stabilization unit is,” Johnson said.