LANSING, Mich. — When police respond to calls for help, they often encounter people who would be better served by mental health care or addiction treatment than time in jail.
That's why the Lansing Police Department hired Jan Bidwell.
“We don’t have enough mental health and addiction services, so the police are the ones that catch people as they’re falling," said Bidwell. "They’re the ones that intervene almost at the last minute.”
Bidwell joined the department in 2019, not as an officer, but as a social worker. The role was the first of its kind in Michigan when she started, according to Lansing officials.
She acts as the mediator between police and vulnerable populations. When a call comes in, she gets an alert. If a report sounds like more than the typical run in with the law, she steps in to connect the people in crisis to mental health or substance abuse services.
“People are 95 percent of the time genuinely touched that someone is thinking about what they’re going through," Bidwell said.
Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green says Bidwell was a crucial addition to the department.
“For policing, we deal with social issues all the time. Bidwell brings just a host of different skill sets that have really I think transformed our department," he said.
Green said Bidwell has made officers "more empathetic" to homeless people and individuals dealing with substance addiction or mental illness.
When COVID-19 hit, Bidwell said, Michigan saw an increase in demand for mental health services that it couldn’t keep up with. Even before the pandemic, the state fell short.
“When someone is in need of mental health services, sometimes there’s no place to put people for the treatment that they need,” said Sheryl Kubiak, the dean of Wayne State University's School of Social Work.
Nearly 1.3 million people in Michigan have a mental health condition, according to a 2020 study by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. The state Department of Health and Human Services only operates five inpatient hospitals across the state, leaving community resources to bridge the gap.
Behavioral health experts like Kubiak say this shortage of facilities makes the criminal justice system a catch all for people who need mental health treatment, potentially putting everyone involved in danger.
“We expect law enforcement officers to be everything. Often when there’s an emergency like a public welfare call, officers will go out, but they’re usually more assertive in a situation and so what happens is the opposite of what you want to happen," said Kubiak. "You don’t de-escalate a situation, you escalate a situation and that’s where you can get into situations where this is not the best for the individual who needs the help or the officer.”
Before COVID-19, Bidwell would physically meet people where they were to help them. A year into the pandemic, she says she’s found ways to adapt.
“It is better to look at people and it is better to be able to go to their homes and to connect with them, but I can do a tremendous amount on the phone,” said Bidwell.
As soon as she starts her shift, the calls flood in. They could be reports about overdoses, domestic disputes, or suicide attempts.
Regardless of what she hears on the other line, Bidwell says, she understands the responsibility she has to the community.
“The most important piece of being an embedded social worker is the access I have to the citizens to be able to reach out," she said.
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