By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point Police Dept. has a new position in its ranks: the Crisis Intervention Officer.
The position, held by Ofc. Kristi Ahrens and developed largely around her unique skill set, solidifies the department’s ongoing efforts to offset a chronic spike in the number of mental health calls requiring police intervention. Unfortunately, dept. officials say, it’s also a sign the problem is here to stay — and likely, on the rise.
Her superiors at SPPD will say Ahrens was selected to fill the new administrative role because of her passion, drive and knowledge of the community. But despite serving in the department for more than 17 years, Ahrens, a Pacelli graduate, will tell you she’s learning something new about the community all the time.
“I am beginning to realize how limited our resources are in Portage County,” Ahrens said. “Sometimes [it’s] weeks or months before someone can get an appointment for a therapist or psychiatrist.”
Ahrens, who added Portage Co. Health and Human Services “has been awesome” to work with despite scheduling shortfalls, no longer works as a patrol officer. She is now the police department’s administrative point of contact between those afflicted with mental health issues and agencies offering a variety of family and mental health services.
“If we can have people connected to resources by the second time we’re called, instead of, say, the 10th time we’re called, so they don’t need law enforcement as much, and they’re getting the help they need, and that’s really a win-win,” Ahrens said.
Ahrens once served as the CIO while working as a patrol officer with fluctuating hours, but changing the position to an administration role — one that works Monday through Friday during a daytime shift — gave the job a centralized hub it previously lacked, according to Assistant Police Chief Tom Zenner.
He also said several instances of repeat calls to the same residences made clear the need to do something different.
“Consistency is very important when you’re dealing with someone who has mental health issues,” Zenner said. “One thing we did identify is, at the patrol level, you have different officers responding to these types of calls, so there isn’t that consistency — [Ahrens] brings that consistency, so we can be more proactive than reactive.”
While many administrative police officers hold plain-clothes positions, Ahrens will continue to wear her police uniform because it’s another element of consistency, Zenner added.
Police Chief Martin Skibba said patrol officers who respond to mental health calls vary depending on the time and day of the call. That variance, he said, can cause unnecessary tension for someone who suffers from mental illness — creating an even larger problem than officers were initially called for.
“People are reaching out to Kristi, they call her with follow up information, so they are responding to her,” Skibba said. “This isn’t always a matter of law enforcement removing someone from a bad situation; it’s about working with them as a person and treating them with respect, but also continually-building trust.”
Working during business hours was key for the new position, Ahrens said, because that’s when family resources and mental health agencies are easiest to contact. Patrol officers will continue to respond to the mental health calls, providing immediate help for emergency situations, and sending referrals for follow-up to Ahrens’ desk.
From her new role she is also able to provide quick follow-up for those needing help, and follow each case to some form of resolution — something a patrol officer rarely has time to do.
While all officers at SPPD undergo crisis intervention training, Ahrens has a unique network of resources at her disposal. She also helps run Crisis Intervention Partners, a program which trains non-law enforcement — to include municipal employees, nonprofit groups, public services agencies and firefighters/EMS — to better understand mental health issues.
The process of handling a mental health call can be arduous for law enforcement, she said: it takes an emotional toll on all involved, and can require several hours of a patrol officer’s day or even turn violent. One tool patrol officers have at their disposal to defuse a potentially violent situation is something called a “safety plan”.
In conjunction with Portage Co. HHS, Ahrens and other local officers create a unique safety plan for each individual they encounter suffering from mental health problems. The plan includes specific steps a responding officer can take to help defuse a problem — like calling a comforting family member — and potentially prevent repeat calls to the same residence, a request for EMS or an involuntary hospital committal.
“They’re updated all the time,” Ahrens said of the safety plans. “It’s done on a case-by-case basis; sometimes people change their behavior so their plan is updated; it’s a fluid document.”
Once a single binder containing about 130 safety plans, the plans now number in the hundreds and have been split into two books — copies of which are kept at HHS; all local law enforcement and fire/EMS agencies; local hospitals; and Portage Co. dispatch.
Because a mental health call can initially present itself as something different, such as a noise complaint or disorderly conduct, it’s tough to quantify just how many calls related to mental illness police receive. But according to a recently-completed study conducted by the department, Stevens Point police responded to about 700 welfare checks in 2013, compared with more than 1300 in 2016.
“I think that number will continue to go up,” Ahrens said. “I think a lot of times, people just aren’t aware of the resources available for their type of issues, or they might not think they need any help.”
Zenner said the department has already had internal conversations about possibly adding another CIO, but resource management can only go so far without additional personnel.
Ahrens is also working with groups in Portage and Wood counties to help provide education — and eliminate stigma — about mental illness. Public education events will be coming later in April, she said.
“Nobody chooses to live with mental illness,” Ahrens said. “I feel everyone has the right to live a good life, and if I can help them get to that, that’s kind of the point.”
Ahrens can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.