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Scranton police, mental health center reflect on one year as partners

The Scranton Police Department headquarters at 100 S. Washington Ave.
The Scranton Police Department headquarters at 100 S. Washington Ave.

Since last August, the Scranton Counseling Center has supported the city’s police department on mental health-related dispatch calls. The co-responder partnership intends to decrease the number of arrests, limit use of force incidents and de-escalate crisis situations.

“We want to have improved safety for both the individual that’s in crisis and officers on the scene,” said Kristen Simpson, director of crisis services at the Scranton Counseling Center (SCC).

When Simpson’s staff respond to a call, they can briefly counsel those in crisis and connect them with behavioral health services. That can keep people out of emergency departments that are already overwhelmed, she said, adding counseling center responders are “familiar with what’s available in the community and hopefully be able to stabilize the situation on an ongoing basis.”

To improve response times, an SCC behavioral health professional is now stationed at the Scranton Police Department (SPD), Simpson said. Crisis co-responder Jess Dorton joins SPD officers when they determine an incident requires her expertise, as long as the situation is considered safe. Other SCC staff are available should call volume increase, according to Simpson.

SPD Det. Sgt. Christian Gowarty said a text alert system notifies the co-responder, who receives updates as the department learns more about the situation. Gowarty is the department liaison with the counseling center and has a master’s degree in social work, said Simpson.

“If it's clearly an issue where she knows she needs to respond, she'll respond in her own vehicle,” Gowarty said. “If it's something that seems as though they're still uncertain of the safety measures, she will call our supervisors on shift and just basically get a rundown of what's happening.”

Scranton Police Chief Thomas Carroll said officers responded to 600 mental health incidents last year. Counseling center staff were on the scene for 45 of those incidents, he said at last month’s State of the City address.

“We don’t pretend to know as much as they do, and they’re highly qualified,” Carroll said in an interview with WVIA News. “We enjoy having them assist us. It’s a force multiplier for the Scranton Police Department.”

With the first year under their belt, there have been chances to improve the partnership before it reaches other departments in the region, Carroll said.

“With Scranton being the pilot program, we can add the resources that’s needed to make this successful, but I anticipate other departments getting on board, especially as their operational tempo increases over the years,” he said.

Growth outside of Scranton

The program has goals of expanding to other law enforcement agencies in Lackawanna and Susquehanna counties. Departments in South Abington, Clarks Summit, Olyphant and Archbald have all shown interest, Simpson said. The partnership may be more difficult in more rural Susquehanna County, which often relies on state police in some municipalities, she said.

Clarks Summit Police Chief Christopher Yarns said his department would welcome mental health professionals on crisis calls. They’re waiting on the Scranton Counseling Center to have the bandwidth, he said.

First, Simpson said, active planning with departments needs to happen, which takes time, and SCC would require additional staff. Co-responders have joined the Olyphant Police Department on a few calls, she said, though a formal agreement has not yet been drawn up.

Mental health training for police departments

Officers can voluntarily complete 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training programs. Currently, about 90 SPD officers are trained in CIT, Carroll said, which took root in Scranton 13 years ago.

In 2009, Scranton police killed 52-year-old Brenda Williams, who suffered from a mental health crisis. She approached officers with a knife after they entered her home, according to reports at the time. Simpson said an organized effort in Lackawanna County to learn from other police departments began in 2010, shortly after Williams’ death.

CIT training is based on a collaboration between the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI), Memphis academics and police, commonly called the “Memphis model.” Simpson leads CIT courses and continuing education requirements in Lackawanna County. In an ideal response, crisis intervention-trained officers would partner with counseling center staff on mental health-related calls, Simpson said, but that isn’t always possible.

While local police departments are still growing connections with mental health experts, law enforcement is often still one of the first to respond to crises, Gowarty said.

“We’re the only ones now who are available 24/7. If someone has a mental health crisis, we’re the ones coming," he said. "So we have to be the ones prepared to handle it."

Dial 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline if you or someone else is experiencing a mental health emergency,

Scranton Counseling Center’s crisis line can be reached at (844) 348-6100.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.