Wisconsin residents support mental health workers in police departments, survey finds

FOX VALLEY (NBC 26) — A new survey shows that many people in Wisconsin support having mental health officers in their local police force and would even be willing to pay for the position.

Deputy Josh Hopkins assumed this role at the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office more than two years ago. He transitioned from patrol to his current role as County Behavioral Health Officer, where he responds to and investigates mental health-related calls, connects people to resources and helps fellow officers see situations. from a different angle.

Hopkins also works with other agencies to improve or create behavioral health programs.

“As law enforcement, we interact with many calls that have a mental health component to the call,” Hopkins said. “Now that my position exists and we’re seeing individuals come into more contact with mental health resources, officers respond to that call and they contact me, or they just self-acknowledge there was a mental health issue. health of this appeal, so how should we approach this to best benefit the citizen and other citizens of Outagamie County to create long-term support.

Elsewhere in Fox Valley, a furry friend helps the Oshkosh Police Department with similar calls.

Magic is the department’s therapy dog ​​and works alongside Scott Sopata, OPD’s behavioral health manager.

“His job is to provide that calm and support so people feel a little more comfortable talking with an officer or a social worker,” Sopata said.

Sopata became the department’s first behavioral health officer about six months ago. He responds to high-priority crisis calls to de-escalate situations and bridge the gap between mental health services in the area and law enforcement.

“We were diverting them to the crisis, but we didn’t follow up after that. We didn’t make sure they were sticking to their plan and really giving them a safe person to talk to if they were maybe about to get into a crisis, or things weren’t going well not plan themselves and they wanted other options,” Sopata said. “We didn’t have a security plan for them. So my position is to close that gap and have a 24-hour service that people can call if they’re having a hard time, and get them into the services to make sure that if something is wrong , we can give additional tools to make sure we can help them through their crisis. »

Hopkins’ position came to fruition through a privately funded grant. Sopata and Magic’s jobs are funded from the Oshkosh Police Department budget. Both reflect the results of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association latest surveywhich highlights positive public support for these roles.

In this poll, 67% of respondents said they supported increased spending on social programs, but not at the expense of their police force. 64% of respondents said they support an increase in local taxes for specially trained mental health workers.

“For the agencies that have already taken these steps to make some of these investments, knowing that in areas where this spending has such high public support, it has to be rewarding and kind of reinforces these efforts,” Jim said. Palmer, executive director of the WPPA. . “It’s something that can help inform decision-making for state and local decision makers.”

The Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office has launched a SAFE Program, which allows community members to voluntarily share behavioral health conditions and how best first responders can help if called in an emergency.

The Oshkosh Police Department is partnering with Winnebago County Social Services to add an emergency worker to the behavioral health program. This person answers calls with Sopata and Magic to help defuse, support and recommend services. This is part of a temporary project that will be reassessed in two years.

The Oshkosh National Alliance on Mental Illness welcomes a 5k run for mental health and suicide awareness starting at 9 a.m. Saturday at Oshkosh North High School. Sopata and Magic will be there to provide additional support.

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