Omaha Police Department starts pilot program aimed at addressing mental health crisis calls

OMAHA, NEB. (KMTV) — The Omaha Police Department responds to thousands of mental health calls every year, and sometimes those moments turn aggressive.

We all know someone dealing with mental health, and OPD is no stranger to this growing crisis either.

Recent protesters have been calling for more resources to be funneled into mental health, something Jason Heft with OPD’s Behavioral Health and Wellness says they are already working on.

“I think the message is fairly clear in that we as a society need to address the mental health elements in our community,” Heft said.

Heft and the OPD’s Mental-Health Coordinator, Lindsay Kroll, are working on a program that provides intervention for residents that are dealing with a mental-health crisis.

They are doing this with licensed therapists, or what the department calls co-responders.

“The big goal of the program and really the whole Behavioral Health and Wellness Unit within OPD is to divert folks who have mental health struggles from jail, incarceration, involuntary hospitalization – when that’s not necessary – and get people connected to get their needs met,” Kroll said.

Something new to the program is officers wear their soft uniforms and respond in an unmarked car. Kroll says this removes some of the criminal elements and mental health stigmas when responding to these calls.

Heft adds that the department responds to roughly 15,000 to 20,000 mental health calls a year, so co-responders are needed to help de-escalate some of these moments.

“We have started calling some of those co-responders to join officers at scene,” Heft said. “Our future goal, of course, is that we will have the co-responders, as well as those officers that have special mental health training… they will be able to respond directly to those calls.”

The co-responders are looked at as a gap where other providers maybe can’t respond.

Kroll says OPD’s co-responders help connect those in need with resources to prevent future mental-health crisis calls to 911.

“When officers respond with co-responders, they get to see how therapist function, how therapist ask questions and how people respond to that,” Kroll said. “There is a lot of informal training that happens just by being part of that intervention and that call.”

Kroll and Heft say the future of the program is to have co-responders in all of Omaha’s five precincts, driving with officers for the entirety of their shift.

The program currently only has two co-responders, and OPD is looking to recruit more.