He’s finding ways to connect, rather than jail, those with behavioral health issues

On duty with Whatcom County’s Crisis Intervention Deputy

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Crisis Intervention Deputy Jamie Collins spends much of his day responding to behavioral health-related calls.
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Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Crisis Intervention Deputy Jamie Collins spends much of his day responding to behavioral health-related calls.

The call comes in. Sometimes it’s a man jumping into traffic, or a meth-induced psychosis leading her to hide under an overpass with a knife. Other times it’s a distraught parent unsure what to do about his adult child’s escalating violent behavior, or maybe it’s the elderly woman paranoid about the scuffs on her floor, believing them to be signs of an intruder. Sometimes the call is once a month, other times it’s 30.

When the call comes in, more often than not, law enforcement is sent to the scene to resolve the situation. Sometimes it ends with an arrest or an involuntary hold at the hospital. Eventually, the underlying issue becomes apparent — it’s likely mental health-related.

As law enforcement agencies are increasingly confronted with those struggling with mental health and/or substance use disorder issues, some are searching for better ways to help people.

That’s where Jamie Collins comes in. He’s Whatcom County’s first Crisis Intervention Deputy. He works for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and it’s his job to bring creative solutions to problems.

“We shoot to be way over the bar and to learn what is more effective and what is more efficient and how to do that in a safer way. One of my goals is for our community to know that, first of all, we take mental health real seriously. We want to bring a solution. We want to also understand that that’s not just about that individual, it’s about the families behind the individual,” Collins said. “We’re trying to be on the front edge.”

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said, beginning around the late 2000s, his office started seeing a dramatic increase in the number of people they encounter who have serious mental illnesses or substance use disorders. Elfo said he believed there was a better way to handle those cases, by diverting people from the criminal justice system and jail to treatment, or to try to intervene before a crime is committed.

“We have a tremendous problem in our county with untreated and dangerous forms of mental illness and substance abuse and our philosophy is a lot of these individuals in appropriate cases could be much better treated by the treatment community than going to jail. I think we’ll use less resources and we’ll be doing it more humanely, and work to find a safer and better solution to many of the problems,” Elfo said.

In 2018, 808 cases were determined to be mental-health related, according to numbers compiled by Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick with the Sheriff’s Office. A year prior, it was 652 cases.

Crisis Intervention Deputy Jamie Collins, in his squad car in downtown Bellingham in January, spends much of his day working with and responding to behavioral health-related calls to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Elfo said he wasn’t sure what accounted for the increase in the number of encounters, but that they’re here to stay. So, plans for a mental health deputy roughly began in 2014, Elfo said. The money was eventually approved for the position and Collins started his new role in September. Money has now been approved by the Whatcom County Council for a second crisis intervention deputy, who will be selected in 2019, Elfo said.

“Law enforcement is the only agency out of all the social services that responds 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is authorized to actually take people into custody against their will. We’re the ones that can’t say no. We have to respond and we want to do it in the most efficient, effective and humane way as we possibly can,” Elfo said.

Building relationships

While all deputies receive crisis intervention training, Collins is the only deputy assigned to focus primarily on mental-health related calls. In his role, Collins said he tries to create more pathways for deputies and social service agencies to get people connected to services rather than incarceration.

Collins said it’s about evaluating and understanding the reasons behind someone’s behavior. Maybe the man running around the park and hiding in the bathroom believing someone is chasing him got new medication, or didn’t take it, and needs someone to help him hit the reset button and stabilize. Or maybe it’s the man who wanted their child to shoot them, but instead Collins and others responded, removed the gun from the house, and involved a social worker to help prevent a similar situation in the future.

Collins said once the reasons are understood, the person can get connected to needed services. He shows up in full uniform when he responds to calls so that the next time another officer responds, that person will be familiar with law enforcement and know they’re there to help, Collins said. And if a deputy does have to respond again, they’ll have more information about that person and their situation than they might have had before Collins’ position existing, he said.

“The idea is that we can intervene before it gets more dangerous. And a lot of times, they just don’t know where to turn to, but it came to our attention so we can be a little bit more proactive. My first concern is to make it safer for the person struggling and make it safer for us,” Collins said. “We’re bringing order out of chaos. We come with a plan and a solution. It’s not only de-escalating, that’s for the moment, but it’s then getting the resources that they need. And hopefully that’s the last time they have to have the police and all this happen. That’s a win.”

Part of Collins’ job is also about building relationships, not only with people within the community, but also with members of different agencies.

Collins is bridging the gap between law enforcement and the mental health system, said Brandon Foister, director of outpatient and emergency services in Whatcom County with Compass Health. Foister said Collins is able to help get people to where they need to go, get law enforcement and treatment agencies on the same page. His work will likely lead to better health outcomes, Foister said. Having a crisis intervention deputy marks a shift in starting to treat the whole person, Foister said.

“Even though we have the same goals and end view in mind, sometimes we speak different languages and have different views on the subject of mental illness, even though the end goal is to reduce incarceration for better health outcomes. We see Deputy Collins being able to expand that goal we all share,” Foister said. “We’re finally able to put it into action on the ground. It’s about building a stronger safety net and keeping people above the cracks in the system.”

It’s not just social service agencies that Collins assists. When Garrett Faddis, who is assigned to code enforcement with the county planning department, started investigating several complaints about motor homes in the right-of-way on Birch Bay-Lynden Drive, he soon realized the problem was more complex than just code enforcement. Faddis learned that an elderly couple and their developmentally disabled adult son were living in one of the dilapidated trailers. There was also a trespassing situation with another person living in a separate trailer that the family wanted removed, in addition to an abandoned house on the five-acre property.

In mid-January, Faddis and Collins met and visited the family to learn more about what was going on. While the family voiced their reluctance to leave, Collins and Faddis started the process of getting multiple agencies involved, such as the planning and health departments, as well as Adult Protective Services.

Faddis said having a crisis intervention deputy allows for a better multi-jurisdictional approach to solve complex problems.

“With Jamie in a position to focus on this and help coordinate efforts, it becomes more of a team approach and the implementation of resolution processes is better considered and better thought out on what everybody brings to the table. And we’re better able to focus on the needs of the person involved,” Faddis said. “There’s more focus on how to help them out rather than a singular action that may not solve the issue at all.”

Since that meeting, Collins said one trailer has been removed, next steps have been put in motion and there were plans to check on the family again to further work toward helping them into a more stable and healthy living situation.

Frequent callers

Collins is also working with people with behavioral health issues who frequently call 911. Collins said that previously, every deputy would deal with those calls, but no singular person was keeping track of the people involved. Patrol deputies don’t have time to follow-up with those situations, as there are sometimes more urgent calls that they need to respond to.

Now, deputies who identify someone as a frequent caller who is in crisis or is having mental health-related issues, will pass them along to Collins so that he can help them get connected to services. Rather than having a person call 911 30 times a month, they’ll maybe only call 10 times, Collins said. This also allows Collins to help further educate deputies so they can better deal with future situations.

Collins, who has been in law enforcement for 20 years and has served as a patrol officer, neighborhood deputy, detective and SWAT operator, is also working on a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

“I get the mental health world and how they see these situations and I get the law enforcement side, so I try to marry the two together. So helping our deputies understand what’s the new research out there, how do we deal with these things,” Collins said. “So I teach our guys the three S’s: The first thing to do is make the scene safe, and then you start talking and then you seek a solution.”

Collins said he, like others in law enforcement, is exposed to a lot of trauma and that it sticks with him. But when he and other deputies resolve situations, it’s worth it, he said.

“There’s a sense, like you know, I really did make a difference today. That individual, that child or that person who is suffering is suffering no longer,” Collins said.

Another officer

The Sheriff’s Office isn’t the only agency trying to create solutions. The Bellingham Police Department is creating a behavioral health officer position, similar to Collins’. They expect to have that officer start in the new role by June, Lt. Claudia Murphy with Bellingham Police said.

In 2018, Bellingham Police responded to more than 3,000 calls for people with mental health or substance use disorder issues, Murphy said. Many of those calls came from the same people until they received services, Murphy said. The idea behind the behavioral health officer is that, like Collins, they’ll work with people and help them navigate the system to get connected to the correct services, she said.

The officer would also work in coordination with the community liaison with the GRACE program, and the community medic, Murphy said. GRACE (Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement) is a countywide effort that brings a number of agencies and social service providers together to help those who fall through the cracks and who have a number of needs, according to previous reports in The Herald.

“A full time behavioral health officer would provide the continuity of care and representation of our department’s values in providing service to our more vulnerable citizens,” Murphy read from a document about the behavioral health officer position.

Murphy said the program would also help build relationships between law enforcement and the mental health community, while also showing compassion to those who have mental health needs.

“Our hope is that the behavioral health officer, mental health providers and the community medic can take a proactive approach by helping identify the most frequent resource users and help plug them into the appropriate resources they need,” the document states. “This would benefit not only those suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, but the frequency of calls to 911 and the impact on the community would diminish.”

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.