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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Program aims to foster relationships between Eastern State Hospital patients, Spokane police

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 13, 2019

Spokane Police Department Chief Craig Meidl called the partnership, called COP TALK, between Eastern State Hospital and his department groundbreaking on Friday in Medical Lake. (Arielle Dreher / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Department Chief Craig Meidl called the partnership, called COP TALK, between Eastern State Hospital and his department groundbreaking on Friday in Medical Lake. (Arielle Dreher / The Spokesman-Review)

A new collaboration between police and Eastern State Hospital aims to reduce violent encounters with patients after they are released into the community.

The program started when a mental health nurse at Eastern decided she wanted to be a reserve police officer. Carrie Christiansen began to see her former patients while on patrol, and she realized formal connections between law enforcement officers and patients being discharged from Eastern were necessary.

“It really was listening to patients’ stories,” she said. “Almost every patient out here has had some kind of interaction with law enforcement.”

She met Spokane Police Department officer Graig Butler in July 2018 for a ride-along, and their brainstorming turned into the Community Outreach with Patients Through Affirmative Law Enforcement Conversations, or COP TALK for short.

Last summer, Butler started visiting Eastern every week in plain clothes, playing cards or shooting hoops with patients. He would only acknowledge that he was a police officer if asked by patients. He worked on relationships for three to four months before beginning the class component of the program.

“Before the education piece could start, the relationships had to start,” Butler said.

The program is voluntary for patients at the state-run psychiatric hospital with about 300 beds.

Butler said patients have expressed fear of multiple officers showing up to a scene, which can lead to a traumatizing experience. In his class, he answers questions people may have about police procedures.

“We have five officers show up to a call if there’s a threat of violence of some kind. We have the lights and sirens, fire department and ambulance,” Butler said. “There’s a reason we do that: We create contact teams so there’s a different force option on these contact teams.”

A video promoting the program shown to reporters on Friday included patient testimonies, although no patients were at the press conference announcing the program. One patient described being held down by six officers, and being traumatized by that. Butler has lunch scheduled with her next month.

“Those are interactions that only happen because I spent time building rapport before rushing into the education piece.” Butler said.

The program is a part of the region’s law enforcement program that embeds mental health providers with officers for certain calls. In 2020, four more co-deploy mental health teams will be dedicated to strictly mental health-related calls with police.

The COP TALK and soft hand-off program at Eastern State Hospital will eventually mean that people who decide to participate have individual response plans that law enforcement officers could see before or during a call that show a person’s mental health diagnosis or health history.

“The goal is for patrol officers to have access to all the information we gain out here, so if they run their name a crisis plan would be available,” Christiansen said.

Butler said he is also working to educate SPD officers with feedback from patients. Using a survey social workers gave some patients at Eastern about their interactions with police, Butler will compile a list of their responses and present it to the enhanced crisis intervention team at their next meeting.

“The goal, in speaking with the new sergeant of the Behavioral Health Unit, is to get all crisis intervention officers cycled through Eastern State Hospital,” Butler said.

The program is in its infancy. Butler said 35 to 50 people have participated in COP TALK, but of those only about six patients have been discharged to the community. Christiansen said they have made contact with all of those discharged through the soft hand-off program, and none of them has been arrested or had force used on them since their release.

The new partnership fits well with community mental health provider efforts to work with law enforcement.

SPD and the Spokane Sheriff’s Department received grant funding from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs this year to expand their co-deploy mental health teams, with Frontier Behavioral Health. These teams would do follow-ups with patients discharged from Eastern, once the new system is implemented.

SPD Chief Craig Meidl said the program is groundbreaking and thanked Eastern staff for allowing law enforcement to come on-campus. He said many Eastern patients have their first experience with law enforcement when there is a crisis.

“So when they think of law enforcement, they think of all the trauma that can go along with the interaction,” Meidl said. “What an amazing opportunity for us to start to shift that paradigm for them, but conversely be able to learn from them: What are the things we can do to not create trauma when we show up in those calls to make it quicker and safer?”

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