Local law enforcement and Prosper Waco officials hope a social worker who will soon set up shop in the Waco Police Department will get people the support they need before they are in mental health crisis.
The city of Waco entered an $86,000 contract with Prosper Waco to pay for the position through September 2022. The social worker will be a Prosper Waco employee embedded in the Waco Police Department’s CCAST unit, which has taken on the bulk of mental health calls since it was created last year.
“That’s when we interact with a lot of people whose health has deteriorated to the point where we have to intervene and take them to the hospital and get them evaluated,” Assistant Police Chief Mark Norcross said. “This program is meant to monitor those folks and hopefully keep that from happening.”
CCAST stands for Career Criminal Apprehension and Supervision Team, a name that made less and less sense as the unit’s role emerged. Former police chief Ryan Holt, who now serves as an assistant city manager, created the unit to deal with people who have repeated run-ins with law enforcement.
Police initially thought that would mean repeat violent offenders and suspects with warrants out for their arrest, said Telawna Kirbie, director of behavioral health initiatives for Prosper Waco.
What they found instead was that most repeat offenders were getting in trouble for crimes like criminal trespass and solicitation, and many of are either homeless, struggling with their mental health, dealing with addiction or some combination of the three. Today, officers in the unit often double as moral support for the people they arrest.
“It ended up being a completely different population than they originally intended,” Kirbie said.
Norcross said the department usually responds to about three mental health calls a day during the week or five or six on the weekends, which sounds low. But in terms of police resources, the calls add up quickly, because each one means one or two officers working solely on that call for between six and 36 hours.
“That’s really no one’s fault. That’s just what goes into this type of call,” Norcross said. “So that’s part of the reason for the program for us.”
Under a broadly written state statute, if a police officer believes a person poses a danger to themselves or others, the officer can place the person in custody and immediately take them to a hospital for an evaluation.
“It’s not really an arrest, but you’re still restricting their movements and taking them forcibly to the hospital to be evaluated by mental health professionals,” Norcross said.
He said the doctor running the evaluation will decide whether the person should be taken to a mental hospital.
Norcross said there are a number of people who the police interact with on a regular basis during mental health episodes, often referred to by police as “mental health consumers.” The social worker to be embedded with the department will help those people navigate the health care system and get the help they qualify for, hopefully helping them avoid another crisis in the future.
“We’re excited about this for a number of reasons,” Norcross said. “We’re going to be able to, hopefully, get these folks to the resources they need before they’re in that crisis.”
Prosper Waco CEO Suzii Paynter March said CCAST has a caseload of between 25 and 30 people at any given time. The social worker will work with those people on an individual basis, and will go with police to mental health calls involving people who are already on the CCAST roster.
“They told us that some of these folks might have 100 touches with the police in a year, or 30 arrests in a year,” March said. “So there is something that is systemically repetitive.”
The social worker will conduct initial needs assessments with people the CCAST unit has contact with to determine if they need housing, transportation, education assistance, employment or mental health care. The worker would follow up with each person at least once a month.
March said compared to police, who show up after the situation has already deteriorated in an interventionist role, social workers are trained in what she calls the “service of accompaniment,” the long-term help that lasts long after the 911 call.
“That’s one of the real strengths of social workers,” March said. “Maybe they need to get a medication, maybe they need to make an appointment, maybe they need to not lose their apartment. That accompanying role allows them to stay on a more level playing field, so they don’t end up in crisis as frequently or dramatically.”
Kirbie said she expects there will be demand for more social workers serving in a similar role after the first position is filled. She said until there is a clear path forward to add more, Prosper Waco will have to “guard” the new hire to prevent them from being completely overwhelmed.
A lack of psychiatric beds locally and statewide makes finding a place for people in psychiatric crisis difficult, forcing patients to wait for hours or days.
Kirbie said embedding mental health professionals with police meets one set of needs, but there is still a larger need for more beds, housing for homeless people and support for people just getting out of prison.
“This is our beginning steps into trying to complete this overall response system for the community,” Kirbie said.