Proposed police-mental health collaboration deferred indefinitely

A mat and a bag of belongings sit beneath a statue of Jesus
The St. John Street shelter is set to reopen by the end of the year. That may help reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the LaPlace neighborhood, but the number of beds it can provide will be well short of the number needed. Photo by Robin May

The proposal was this: Ness Healthcare, a nonprofit behavioral healthcare provider, would dispatch a mental health expert, along with police, on calls flagged as potential mental health crises, especially those involving homeless residents. The goal: to get people the help they need, rather than arresting them or leaving neighborhoods to deal with the effects of unaddressed mental health issues among those living on their streets.

The concept has been tried in cities across the country, with positive results. But this week the proposal was scuttled in favor of a reset in light of unaddressed skepticism about the nonprofit’s approach and fitness. 

“We’re having some conversations about having those services provided by agents that are more local,” said City Councilman Glenn Lazard. He pushed for the reboot with support from the Lafayette Police Department, which had originally sponsored the item on Tuesday’s council agenda. 

Ness, which operates a behavioral health hospital in Mandeville called Northlake Behavioral Health Center, recently opened an office in Lafayette and has become one of the state’s preferred partners in its efforts to tackle the mental health crisis, focusing on providing mobile crisis response — sending mental health professionals to the scene. 

“It’s a cheaper model, and it’s a more efficient model than the lights and glare and sirens and chaos,” said Northlake Behavioral CEO Joe Buckley, who has served as Ness’s public representative in Lafayette and beyond. 

Indeed, the model has become common. 

A program in Nashville was made permanent after a year-long pilot showed only 4% of calls lead to arrests, while others were referred to emergency departments, inpatient facilities or a newly created Crisis Treatment Center. A program in Alexandria, Virginia, led to more calls resolved on scene, fewer arrests on mental health-related calls and more referrals to services.

Called Police-Mental Health Collaborations (PMHC), the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance says such initiatives can lead to better public health outcomes, improve daily outcomes of people with behavioral health needs and increase the overall quality of policing.

Both Ness’s proposed collaboration with LPD and its plans for the region as part of the state’s crisis response plan hinge on mental health care professionals responding directly to calls and offering alternative solutions to incarceration or emergency departments. 

The need is clearly there. According to the Louisiana Department of Health’s Office of Behavioral Health, 4,695 emergency room visits in Acadiana between April 2022 and March 2023 had mental health as the primary diagnosis. 

LCG has also faced pressure from neighborhoods with concentrated numbers of people living unsheltered to address the problem. It came to a head at recent community meetings in the LaPlace/Fightinville neighborhood near Downtown, with Chief Judith Estorge saying her officers were not equipped to manage the complicated problems associated with homelessness. 

Lafayette Police Chief Judith Estorge with officers
Lafayette Police Chief Judith Estorge, flanked by officers at a LaPlace area meeting earlier this summer, has asked for more resources to address public safety and property crimes in local neighborhoods. Photo by Travis Gauthier

A similar collaboration to the one planned for Lafayette, also involving Ness as the mental health team, is currently in its seventh week in Slidell. Fire Chief Chris Kaufmann, whose department is spearheading the pilot program, said it’s gone well so far. 

“We hope to work out all the bugs and really define what we’re doing, so we can roll this out parishwide,” Kaufmann said.

One of the major benefits has been the direct connection the mobile response staff has created between those in crisis, first responders and law enforcement, and Ness’s local facilities, the Ness Center in Lafayette and Northlake Behavioral Hospital in nearby Mandeville. 

But even without those outpatient and inpatient resources run by the same provider offering mobile crisis response, Kaufmann said having Ness staff tag along on calls has been beneficial, especially when it comes to convincing people to consider accepting help in the first place, a challenge his department had not initially anticipated.

“They are able to address the root problem,” Kaufmann said of the mental health professionals now out on scene with his first responders. “There’s no question it has value.”

So, what’s the problem?

A lack of local roots, connections, facilities and staff have been some of the main charges leveled against Ness as a potential partner for the pilot program. 

The relatively new local Ness Center is located across the street from Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center, deep in south Lafayette — not exactly a hotspot for homeless issues — and currently offers its full services only during regular business hours.

And so far, the numbers don’t look good. While the pilot program with LPD has yet to come to fruition — if it ever will — the state health department in a recent presentation cited only three cases in which Ness personnel assisted a person in crisis through the state’s program over the first two months of its existence. 

State health department staff encouraged other local agencies and organizations to collaborate with Ness to improve their contact and success rate, but skepticism has remained the primary response.

“There’s just a lack of knowledge and collaborative relationships. Building a collaborative relationship takes time and effort,” said Holly Howat, founder and executive director of Beacon Connections, a local nonprofit that helps connect patients to both medical and non-medical services and resources that can help improve their long-term health outcomes.

“We’ve been handed something that may not be a good fit for our community,” Howat said.

The proposed agreement between Ness and Lafayette Consolidated Government also failed to clearly define the certification to be carried by the Ness staff member assigned to the mobile crisis response, a concern Ness failed to address after it was brought up in meetings with leadership from local agencies, according to LPD Captain Brad Ridge. 

“We want to consider our options,” Ridge said of the decision to pull the agreement from the agenda Tuesday. “Instead of jumping into something and then see it’s not working.”

Buckley, of Ness and Northlake Behavioral Health Hospital, expressed consternation with the response from local providers and organizations, and what he sees as a lack of willingness to engage and clear up concerns. Ness had offered its services and equipment free of charge to LCG, he noted, making it a “value added” rather than a risk taken.

Of his critics, few have taken the opportunity to ask questions or address concerns directly, Buckley said.

“Heck, why don’t you just stand back and let us do our job? If we screw up, then you can point the finger. But don’t point the finger before I even had a chance,” he lamented. Then, striking a more conciliatory tone, he added, “We’ve got enough business to go around. Let’s join forces, let’s work together.” 

Status: deferred (indefinitely)

Man and woman behind computers at a council meeting
Councilman Glenn Lazard pushed to defer the LPD proposal, preferring to seek out other options. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Lazard admitted that he did not seek out a conversation with Buckley or anyone else on Ness’s leadership team.

Still, he’s steadfast in his decision to seek out other options. 

Conversations with local providers were already underway, he said, although a formal meeting had yet to be set, he noted. “We are simply looking for the best options available, so we didn’t want to rush anything,” Lazard added.

Where the funding for a new pilot would come from remains to be seen. “We’re going to do whatever we need to do to get this program implemented,” Lazard said. He declined to comment on whether Ness would be considered as a partner in any future initiative — provided it would still want to be.