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Report: Baltimore County needs to improve emergency response to mental health situations

Baltimore County could make significant improvements to how it responds to emergency situations involving people with mental health issues, including hiring more crisis counselors and expanding training for police officers and 911 call-takers, an outside group says in a new report.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz ordered an independent review of how police and first responders handle mental health calls after a series of incidents involving subjects with mental illness, including the police shooting death of Korryn Gaines in her Randallstown apartment in 2016.

In a report made public on Wednesday, the Council of State Governments said there are several areas where the county needs to improve how it handles people with mental illness.

The report paints a picture of a crisis response system that has a good foundation but suffers from a lack of coordination, a lack of oversight and insufficient staffing.

“In the scheme of things, what they have in place is fairly effective, said Richard Cho, director of the behavioral health division of the Council of State Governments. “What they need to do is plug in the holes.”

Cho’s group spent a year touring county facilities, interviewing employees and collecting data. Cho said the report identifies ways to turn a “really good” mental health crisis program into one that is “great.”

County officials were reviewing the recommendations in the report. They agreed there’s room for improvement.

“It’s important that Baltimore County continue to be a leader in providing solutions before we have a terrible problem,” Kamenetz said. He said mental illness is “a growing issue of concern.”

The Council of State Governments found that the crisis response programs in the county are “stretched thin.”

For example, the county has mobile crisis teams composed of one counselor and one police officer who can respond to emergency calls that might involve a subject with mental health needs. But just two teams work during the daytime and two teams work in the evenings. None work the midnight shift.

The council suggests hiring three additional crisis teams — one for daytime, one for evening and one for midnight.

Dr. Gregory William Branch, the county’s health officer, said the mobile crisis teams are key to making sure that people who have mental health crises stay safe and avoid “a bad aftermath.”

“The police are dealing with criminal activity. These people have a medical illness and they need to be treated as such,” Branch said. “The only reason we cross is because sometimes the stakes get so high and the risk is so threatening that the police need to be there. However, if we have a mental health person collaborating with police, many times — not all the time — we can de-escalate the situation.”

County Police Chief Terry Sheridan said access to crisis counselors helps ensure “we don’t have to take any kind of drastic action and everyone walks away safe.”

Even with mobile crisis teams, the county has had police situations with ill subjects that ended in death.

Gaines, for example, was shot to death in 2016 at the end of a daylong armed standoff with police at her Randallstown apartment. Lawyers for Gaines’ family argued in court that police knew she was mentally ill and did not handle the case appropriately. The Gaines family was awarded more than $38 million in damages from a civil lawsuit against the county.

Also in 2016, 21-year-old Tawan Boyd of Middle River died after being restrained by police. His girlfriend had called 911 saying he was acting “crazy.” When police and firefighters arrived, he screamed and tried to get into police cars. An autopsy revealed that he had ingested the illegal drug commonly known as bath salts.

County officials have said the review was not spurred by any specific incident.

The council suggests establishing mobile crisis teams that involve only counselors to respond to emergency calls that don’t require the assistance of a police officer.

The council also recommended the county:

- Upgrade emergency call software so that police officers and dispatchers can add multiple flags for mental health issues.

- Integrate systems that track mental health calls handled by the 911 center, the Police Department and the company that’s contracted to provide the county’s crisis mental health responders.

- Improve data collection on how mental health calls are handled by police officers and mobile crisis teams.

- Improve awareness among hospital employees about the county’s mental health crisis services, and improve communication between hospitals and the county when handling mental health crises.

- Establish a regular review of crisis response programs by county leaders.

- Develop a public education campaign to publicize the work of the mobile crisis team.

Kamenetz, a Democratic candidate for governor now in his final months as county executive, said he’ll review which of the recommendations are worthwhile and can be implemented before he leaves office.

“My goal is to start this process now,” he said. “I have until the first week of December.”

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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