‘We can’t police the way we used to’: Lafayette police to form new mental health crisis intervention unit

A police cruiser is parked in a parking lot.
A police cruiser is parked in front of the Lafayette Police Department’s main office on University Avenue in Lafayette, La., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. Photo by Alena Maschke

Having struggled with her mental health for years, Sam Broussard had several interactions with law enforcement that left her disillusioned about how helpful officers can be to someone in crisis.

There was the time she contemplated suicide, sitting on the ledge of the old Lourdes hospital parking tower, when an acquaintance walked by and called the police, hoping officers might diffuse the situation. Instead, Broussard said, she was dragged away from the ledge, thrown to the ground and handcuffed.

The 26-year-old understands officers aren’t well-positioned to handle a situation like hers, she said.

“Police officers are not trained in mental health,” she said. “They and the country, society itself, have vilified mental health for so long. There’s such a stigma around it even in this day and age.” Moreover, she said, it wasn’t fair to expect officers to assess danger, uphold the law and act as crisis counselors.

Local law enforcement agencies have begun to recognize that flaw. The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office recently started dispatching mental health professionals alongside deputies to calls involving mental health crises.

“We are sensitive to how we need to change, we need to be better at de-escalation,” Sheriff Mark Garber said at a press conference announcing the initiative earlier this month.“This is a way for us to go to a whole new level of being emotionally intelligent and better a deescalation for it.”

The Lafayette Police Department too has acknowledged that a different approach is needed.

Earlier this year, LPD scuttled a proposed partnership between the department and a Mandeville-based mental health care provider over criticism from local organizations and went back to the drawing board in search of a new option. In recent months, a coalition spearheaded by Acadian Companies has formed with the goal of creating a comprehensive approach to the multi-faceted issue of mental health in Acadiana.

“It’s a big, big problem, and it’s getting worse,” said Blaise Zuschlag, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Acadian Companies. “We’ve got to do something.”

In partnering with police and other organizations providing services such as mental health treatment, housing assistance or support for people living without shelter, Zuschlag hopes to create several initiatives targeting crisis response, treatment and prevention.

The first of these initiatives currently taking shape is a partnership with LPD. As the primary ambulance service in the area, Acadian Ambulance already sends out paramedics with officers for wellness checks and mental health related calls. As part of this new initiative, the company is looking to bring in a third partner to provide mental health professionals on those calls.

That system is modeled after another partnership Acadian joined in one of the other markets it serves, Quality Improvement Coordinator Blake Miller explained.

In San Antonio, the Specialized Multidisciplinary Alternative Response Team (SMART) was formed to help improve the outcomes of mental health related calls. The teams consist of officers, paramedics and licensed clinicians who can perform a comprehensive assessment on scene to decide whether someone is best directed to jail, a mental health facility or a hospital emergency room.

“I just think it’s the well rounded approach,” Miller said. “You’re bringing all facets to the patient.”

Sometimes, health complications can present as mental health issues, even when they’re not, Miller pointed out. For example, a common urinary tract infection can leave elderly patients appearing confused, their demeanor resembling symptoms of a stroke or mental health problem.

“So the paramedic rules out any signs and symptoms, as many possible as they possibly can,” Miller said. “Then the mental health professional approaches.”

This is the model Acadian has presented to LPD, Miller noted.

A young woman sits on a set of stairs.
Sam Broussard sits on the steps of her apartment building in Lafayette, La., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. Photo by Alena Maschke

The department is currently looking for grants to fund such a program, said Sgt. Kristi Strong, who is spearheading the effort to improve police’s response to mental health related calls, under the leadership of LPD Chief Judith Estorge. Estorge has been vocal about the need for more community collaboration on this issue, especially regarding the intersection of mental health and homelessness.

“We can’t police the way we used to. We have to take a different approach,” Strong said.

In the meantime, LPD recently announced to local mental health providers that it will dedicate two specially trained officers to respond to mental health related calls and be proactive in reaching out to people who had previous contact with police because of a mental health crisis.

The department recently held a meeting to establish relationships with those providers, with the goal of building relationships that will allow them to quickly refer people in crisis for further treatment, if necessary. “Our goal is to help these people get help immediately,” Strong said.

The new initiative, which the department plans to roll out in late January according to Strong, is a precursor to a more comprehensive program in the works with Acadian. “We figured we needed to kind of start somewhere, start small and then branch out,” Strong said. Once funding has been identified, “we will definitely partner with them,” she added.

In the long run, Zuschlag hopes the regional collaborative effort can go beyond just mobile crisis intervention. Acadian Companies is working with a team at Tulane University to provide early intervention for patients at risk of psychosis, including in schools and among the city’s unhoused population. He said he also hopes that services can be expanded at St Joseph Diner, a place where the issue of mental health can be especially visible, because of the demographic served there.

Although homeless residents have been a focal point in the discussion around mental health in Lafayette, to assume that they are the only population in crisis would be a mistake, Zuschlag pointed out.

“The only difference between a person that’s homeless having a mental health episode is that everyone can see them,” Zuschlag said. “There’s a lot of other mental health challenges in our community that are happening within the four walls of people’s homes.”

When officers arrived at Broussard’s door for a wellness check recently, she said she wished there had been a mental health professional present. “Protecting and serving in this day and age is so much more than just ensuring the laws [are followed],” she said.

Hearing that law enforcement agencies were working to address that challenge made her feel hopeful, she added. “It made me really happy,” she said. “I know this is just Lafayette, so it’s not statewide, but it starts here. It starts small, and it gets bigger.”

Unlike many others battling mental health issues, Broussard has stable housing, a therapist and a series of steps she knows to follow when she feels a crisis approaching. Still, this hasn’t prevented her from interacting with law enforcement officers when those levees fail. Next time, she hopes there will be a trained professional coming alongside with them.