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

Spokane Police’s behavioral health unit frees up jail and ER space in 2021, report says

Spokane Sheriff Deputy Dan Moman and Holly Keller, a clinician with Frontier Behavioral Health, partners in the Spokane County Co-Deploy Team, make a welfare check on a woman with mental health issues, July 5, 2019, in the Spokane Valley.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
By Julien A. Luebbers The Spokesman-Review

Four out of five people contacted by the Spokane Police Department’s Behavioral Health Unit in the past year did not end up in jail or the hospital, according to a report from the unit.

The unit handles cases of people in crisis and works to “divert (them) from being involved with the criminal justice system and occupying the emergency room,” Sgt. Jay Kernkamp said.

“We know that behavioral health outcome will tend to end up in jail or in the hospital ERs. So anytime we can give them services to free up that space … that’s always a bonus,” he said.

The unit responds to calls in what Kernkamp called “co-responder units.”

Co-responder units are made up of “a law enforcement officer or deputy paired with a clinician,” Kernkamp said. The unit typically spends 30-45 minutes on a call, where a standard unit might spend 15, according to Kernkamp. The clinicians are employed by Frontier Behavioral Health.

The behavioral health unit’s report to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs highlighted several key numbers from the unit’s past year of operations. The sheriffs and police chiefs association provides funding to the unit in the form of grants.

One percent of people contacted by the BHU were arrested, and 5.5% were diverted from arrestable offenses or hospitals. According to Kernkamp, that 5.5% included people for whom law enforcement had probable cause to arrest, but the unit instead “connects them to a different service or other resource where they’re cared for.”

Of those contacted by the unit, 16% were detained.

Under Washington state law, the co-responder units can involuntarily treat people under certain circumstances.

“Anytime somebody is homicidal, suicidal, or gravely disabled, unable to care for themselves … we’re able to involuntarily detain them,” Kernkamp said.

“The long-term goal is that they’re evaluated, and then during that time they’re able to get back on their medication and back on their feet,” he added.

The unit gives people “the services they need rather than just pigeonholing them,” Kernkamp said.

Out of the 5,364 calls the BHU responded to, zero resulted in force beyond handcuffing.

Many of the calls BHU answers are suicide calls, people “struggling with acute behavioral health issues and in a state of crisis,” Kernkamp said. “We’re able to provide them with services and take life-saving measures before it gets too far down the road.”

In May , the unit received 48 suicide calls.