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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Light years ahead’: Spokane police address dizzying number of mental health crises with unique team

Early this month, a Spokane police officer with a master’s degree in mental health counseling waited as a suicidal man told officers to throw him off of a bridge or shoot him.

In an unrelated matter, police arrived at around 3:30 a.m. March 4 at an apartment complex on State Street that serves otherwise homeless people. They realized a man at the scene was in crisis, according to a Spokane Police Department news release.

When Neighborhood Resource Officer Richie Plunkett arrived to help the suicidal man, he’d already learned some of the tenant’s history from mental health professionals in the department’s Behavioral Health Unit. The man had just been released from Eastern State Hospital, Plunkett said.

Plunkett, a former social worker and 6-foot-6 former college football player, said he introduces himself to people in crisis by his first name to set the tone. He asked the man repeatedly if he’d prefer to be taken to a hospital or to connect with Frontier Behavioral Health. The man paced, huffing, before charging at and punching Plunkett, body cam footage shows.

Plunkett decided not to pursue charges. Assaulting an officer, he pointed out, is a class C felony in the state of Washington.

“I don’t need to make this guy’s life any harder, based on what I knew going in there,” Plunkett said.

Calls for service involving mental health crises are a constant in Spokane, said Sgt. Jay Kernkamp, who heads the Behavioral Health Unit that deploys a police officer with a mental health professional. His team usually has several calls “stacked up” and waiting for them throughout their shifts.

In 2020, the unit responded to 434 suicide calls, according to a February news release from the Spokane Police Department.

The unit is a “cutting-edge” response to mental health crises, said Sgt. Tony Lockhart, who teaches advanced crisis intervention training to new police across the state through the Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Spokane police, Lockhart said, have been “light years ahead of most everybody else with crisis intervention training, and they were early adopters of getting the co-responders,” he said. “Everett did it, Seattle did it, but not a lot.”

The department began co-deploying mental health professionals with officers around the same time other departments across the country took sometimes drastic measures to address changing attitudes about police response to people in mental crisis.

In some rural California counties, agencies made the controversial decision to stop responding to suicide calls at all.

Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff and attorney who has advised dozens of law enforcement agencies in California, said he spearheaded the nonresponse approach in his state. Obayashi argues that feeling suicidal isn’t a crime, and too often when police arrive, the person they’re coming to help feels further provoked by the presence of law enforcement.

Obayashi’s department in rural Plumas County will now respond to suicide calls by phoning the person, but they won’t physically show up unless the person is clearly posing a threat to others.

“What we see in the news too often, officers arrive and there’s a shootout,” Obayashi said. “We don’t want to provoke someone to kill themselves or try to kill us. Too often we face the situation where someone is trying to commit ‘suicide by cop.’ And then we get sued for wrongful death. I know it sounds callous, but I’m sorry, that’s the reality.”

He said the no-response approach prevents “predictable harm” from police showing up.

“We’re not equipped for it,” Obayashi said. “We can’t deal with it.”

Lockhart said some departments in Washington have started to edge toward a less responsive approach too, though he suspects most departments would opt for the kind of team Spokane police deploy if they had the funding for it.

“The vast majority of folks that are in crisis aren’t dangerous,” Lockhart said. “The ones that elevate to the point of calling 911 definitely can be.”

The Spokane Police Department has not and won’t consider a no-response approach, said Julie Humphreys, SPD spokesperson.

“You’re not only keeping the person safe who’s threatening suicide, you’re protecting the people around them who they might be violent toward,” Humphreys said.

The Behavioral Health Unit currently employs two Spokane police officers who are paired with master’s-level counselors, along with a Spokane County Sheriff’s Office deputy and a Spokane Valley deputy who are also paired with counselors. The unit will soon add two more co-deployed teams with Spokane police officers, Kernkamp said.

During the unit’s first year of operation in Spokane in 2020, it contacted 3,760 people in crisis, according to data released by the department.

Of those, 46 people, or 1.2%, were arrested. A little under 600 people, or 16% of contacts, were taken to a hospital for involuntary treatment because they were homicidal, suicidal, unable to care for themselves or gravely disabled, according to the department’s data.

While pairing officers with mental health professionals is gaining traction across the country, Kernkamp said the Behavioral Health Unit is unique because they don’t solely respond when police refer them to a person in crisis. Instead, the team takes calls directly from dispatch. In 2020, the unit responded to 4,272 calls that would’ve normally required patrol to respond, according to the department’s data.

Kernkamp called uses of force in his unit – outside of handcuffing – “very, very rare.” He estimated the Behavioral Health Unit has used stun guns twice in its history.

Plunkett, though not a Behavioral Health Unit officer, has responded to countless calls for people in crisis in his six years as a cop. Reflecting on his time as a counselor, he believes the biggest difference between helping someone in crisis as a counselor and responding as a police officer is the invitation. People coming to his office years ago wanted help. When he responds to a call for service, they usually don’t.

“A lot of people don’t like cops, and it’s understandable,” Plunkett said. “So it’s letting them know you’re here to talk to them and, yeah, it can be scary – a lot of cops are showing up. But we’re trying to talk them down. A lot of times we’re able to talk people into accepting our help.”