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Auburn faculty support Opelika Police Department’s strides in crisis intervention

Representatives from East Alabama social services and the Opelika Police Department at the SIM training workshop
The Opelika Police Department hosted a SIM workshop in April, which invited representatives from East Alabama social services to identify gaps in service and workshop potential solutions.

East Alabama residents will soon experience more comprehensive social services, thanks to the work of the Opelika Police Department’s crisis intervention efforts with collaborative support from Auburn University.

OPD Officer Chase Higgins coordinates and trains the East Alabama Crisis Intervention Team. Through partnerships with community mental health services and resources such as the Auburn University Psychological Services Center, OPD’s crisis intervention team set a standard for law enforcement across East Alabama to divert individuals experiencing mental health or substance use crises away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.

“Lee County should know that their law enforcement agencies are committed to providing a holistic approach to resolving very delicate and complex issues,” Higgins said. “Our law enforcement agencies are committed to the well-being of these communities, and we are supported in this effort by so many organizations, agencies and individuals that share that commitment. This isn’t about any one of us individually but about all of us as a community.”

Assistant Professor of Sociology Makeela J. Wells and Assistant Professor of Social Work Katherine Crawford connected with Higgins after he was honored for creating OPD’s crisis intervention team to offer research-based support. Last fall, Crawford and Wells joined the steering committee for OPD’s crisis intervention team and began evaluating the program.

Wells teaches sociology and criminology, including a course on police and society. Her research expertise includes racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing, as well as perceptions of safety among correctional and police officers.

“For me, it was about taking those resources that I have, the knowledge that I have, the research experience that I have, and sharing it with the community to help the community,” Wells said. “Especially for those social service organizations that are there to serve the community, we need to first help them understand what the community needs and help them find or create those resources.”

Crawford teaches social work clinical practice and has experience providing services to justice-involved individuals with mental health and substance use issues and securing alternatives to incarceration. Her research focuses on evaluating crisis intervention team programs, cross-sector collaborations and best practice in social service organizations.

Crawford said evaluation is key to improving and expanding the program.

“They want to make this an effective program,” Crawford said. “Because eventually, they would like it to cover training of all East Alabama. There’s a big push for that in Alabama right now, because they are seeing what a crisis we have with mental health services and the criminal justice system.”

To bring together mental health, rehabilitation and judicial services, the OPD received a grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to host a Sequential Intercept Model Mapping (SIM) workshop. SIM training creates a “map” of available support services in the community and shows how someone in crisis may move through those services before entering the criminal justice system.

For example, a law enforcement officer may refer an individual in crisis to mental health or substance use disorder services, a hospital or housing authority, or a detention center, depending on the situation.

Higgins said the SIM training equips officers with more resources to protect and serve the community.

“One of the major elements of crisis intervention teams is identifying and employing the appropriate resources for a given situation,” Higgins said. “Police officers are the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system. If they have additional disposition options beyond arrest for people in crisis, and they understand what services those resources provide and how to access them, that enables diversion. Without these workshops and mapping all the options, diversion remains an ambiguous concept rather than a definite process.”

SIM training is an ongoing process in which community partners identify gaps in service, develop priorities, workshop potential solutions and evaluate action plans. Representatives from the East Alabama Mental Health Center, R.O.S.S., Auburn Public Safety, Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Auburn Campus Security, Opelika Municipal Court, SUSCC Adult Education, East Alabama Health, Lee County Alternative Sentencing, Auburn Municipal Court, NAMI Alabama and the Lee County Department of Human Resources will continue to evaluate services throughout the year.

Priorities include increasing funding for the mobile crisis team, increasing cross-system communication and improving after-hours crisis response.

“What I hope to come of this is more of the providers having open communication with each other and law enforcement,” Crawford said. “I hope people in the community talk, generate ideas and be aware of each other, rather than use a siloed approach. When we have a common agenda and find people who are champions for change in each area, they will make it happen.”

Crawford and Wells found police officers, who are expected to perform at a high level, felt disconnected from providers and lacked necessary connections to social services, which in turn may affect crisis intervention.

With training and the SIM workshops, Wells said law enforcement agencies can better serve their officers and communities.

“Oftentimes we have this negative perception of police officers, but we don’t look at why,” Wells said. “If you don’t have enough officers and if you don’t have enough resources to help the community, that puts a strain on police officers. Especially for law enforcement, it could impact the relationships that they have with the community.”

The first SIM workshop was hosted at Auburn University, supported by the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work. Higgins said Auburn faculty have been “instrumental” throughout the creation and training of the crisis intervention team and the SIM workshop.

“Our faculty continue to work as members of the East Alabama SIM Commission to address priorities identified at the workshop,” said Chair Carole Zugazaga. “The department was honored to collaborate with Officer Higgins and SAMHSA, along with numerous campus and community partners, to identify intercepts or opportunities for justice-involved people where an intervention could occur that might prevent people with mental health or substance use disorders from moving deeper into the criminal legal system.”

Tags: Sociology Social Work Community and Outreach

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