Lafayette sheriff creates mental health response team

Man in beige police uniform
Sheriff Mark Garber Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

With the help of a federal grant, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office has created a team to assist deputies on calls related to individuals suffering a mental health crisis.

“Law enforcement is changing to meet the expectations of the public,” Sheriff Mark Garber said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We are sensitive to how we need to change, we need to be better at de-escalation. This is a way for us to go to a whole new level of being emotionally intelligent and better a deescalation for it. “

Garber said that since the team was created in early November, the two mental health professionals who were hired to assist deputies on mental health-related calls have been deployed 29 times, with great success.

In one example highlighted by Garber, deputies were called to respond to the case of a man in Carencro who had threatened suicide. 

When deputies and the newly hired mental health professionals arrived at the scene, they encountered a military veteran suffering from severe posttraumatic stress disorder, who was apprehensive about dealing with law enforcement. The mental health professionals were able to coax the man out from behind a glass door and arrange for a transport to Our Lady of Lourdes hospital, where he was referred to treatment.

“That’s our goal,” Garber said. “De-escalate, use less force, less police officers get injured, less deputies get injured, and most importantly, less injury to the public.”

Law enforcement alone, he noted, wasn’t the right solution for these kinds of situations. “You’re trying to maintain a force of men and women who are going to be ready at a moment’s notice to run toward the sound of gunfire,” Garber said. “It’s really not fair to the profession to expect us to single handedly be the solution to all these different problems.”

Garber said he’s hopeful that this new approach will improve outcomes for everyone involved and potentially save lives. “We can’t change every outcome, but we can try to change some of the outcomes,” he said. “Let’s try to change the script on some of these at least, right?”

The $290,000 grant provided by the U.S. Department of Justice enabled Garber to do something he’d long hoped to do, he said. “Since 2015, I’ve been looking for a way to do it, but cost-wise, my budget has not allowed me to have the luxury to hire in-field mental health professionals,” he explained. The grant, he added, allowed him to hire additional staff for such an initiative without taking away from other law enforcement resources.

Lafayette Parish was one of 23 localities chosen for the grant’s 2023 cohort.

In 2019, in an effort to cut costs prompted by budgetary constraints, Garber made cuts to diversion programs that have widely been held up as successful models of prison reform and reintegration. In the context of the new initiative, the sheriff said he’d still like to see those programs reinstated as well. 

“Diversion in general has been shown to have very, very positive outcomes, rather than just strictly incarcerate, incarcerate, incarcerate,” he said.

The initiative will include follow ups with the people the new team encounters to prevent repeated calls and reduce the risk of future harm. “What we’re trying to do here is get them help, keep following up with them to make sure that they’re getting the help, the resources that they need,” Garber said.