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Longview police provide update on first three months with behavioral health unit

Neighbors: Police and mental health

In July, Columbia Wellness Chief Operations Officer Tina Slunaker, left, Longview Police Chief Robert Huhta, center, and Columbia Wellness Chief Financial Officer Cameron Carson talk about the new partnership to include mental health professionals on Longview Police Department calls.

In the first three months the Longview Police Department has had a behavioral health team, the counselors have answered nearly 200 calls from people going through a crisis.

Chief Robert Huhta gave a presentation to the Longview City Council on Thursday night about the benefits the program has provided. Two members of the behavioral health unit attended the council meeting and shared a bit of their experience working with the police.

The Longview police work with three behavioral health specialists contracted by Columbia Wellness, two paid for by the city and one paid for with a grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The grant also paid for a behavioral health specialist who is working with the Kelso Police Department.

Between Aug. 16 and Oct. 31, the behavioral health unit worked with 131 different people on 185 individual cases.

Initial responses to calls usually involve police officers and the health unit, but the majority of the counselors’ contact with the community came through follow-up visits without police. Huhta said those responses free up a lot of an officer’s time when dealing with people who are frequently the subject of 911 calls.

“If (the health unit) wasn’t working closely with this individual, those would be calls for service that patrol officers would be dealing with,” Huhta said.

About a dozen of the individuals make up a significant percentage of the follow-up calls and contact visits with the behavioral health unit. Laura Eastwick, one of the mental health responders, said many of those repeated contacts had chronic mental illnesses, were frequently homeless, or both.

“It’s really challenging because you’re working with an individual who doesn’t have a home base,” Eastwick said. “We’re really facilitating that engagement with them to make sure that connection is maintained.”

During the presentation, Huhta highlighted a few cases the behavioral health unit had worked on, including one in September, where the unit helped de-escalate a situation involving a man who threatened to commit suicide by cop. And, a mental health professional was involved in the response to Sunday’s bomb threat called into PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center.

Four additional behavioral health experts soon will be added to agencies across Cowlitz County through a mental health tax. Huhta said a small expansion of the unit could be useful in order to have two behavioral health experts available every day.

Longview police plan to hold the first public stakeholder meeting for the unit in December, allowing the council and members of the community to help shape how the mental health responses will work going forward.

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