Sarpy County Sheriff’s Deputy, Sgt. Rob Hillabrand doesn’t wear the typical cop uniform. An 18-year veteran of the department, his look is more business casual.
“It’s called a soft uniform. I’ve got the badge on the polo,” said Hillabrand. “There’s a reason why I dress the way I do and that’s to de-escalate the situation and to show that I’m not here to arrest you. I’m here to help you and provide the resources.”
Hillabrand is the mental health project coordinator at the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office. He is also on the board of Heartland CIT, a nonprofit organization that provides Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to Nebraska law enforcement officers, corrections officers and other officials in the justice system. CIT is a voluntary program that requires a 40 hour commitment from trainees and provides in-depth instruction for those who respond to mental health related emergencies.
“It’s not a crime to have a mental illness,” said Hillabrand. “You do call 911 and ask for a police response because a lot of times when people with a mental illness are in crisis they’re acting erratically, which scares people.”
Hillabrand became an advocate for CIT several years ago. Shortly after receiving the training he responded to a call where a woman was experiencing suicidal thoughts. His training kicked in and he was able to help her get care.
“I discovered resources I had no idea were even available out there, so I’m sure that the citizens in the community with mental illness have no idea,” said Hillabrand.
About three years ago Hillabrand said that Chief Deputy Greg London approached him with an opportunity to create a county-wide mental health unit. Comprised of an officer or deputy from each of the four Sarpy County law enforcement agencies, the mental health crisis support unit would be able to respond to calls county-wide.
Jenny Stewart, Director of Crisis Response with Heartland Family Service, describes Sarpy County’s efforts to provide mental health services and train law enforcement as “special.” She oversees the ASAP program; a team of mental health therapists who are on call around the clock. They are available to co-respond to 911 calls when a greater level of mental health expertise is requested by officers. ASAP has been in place since 2008 and Stewart said the Sarpy unit stands out among the 11 counties where she oversees similar programs.
“Their mental health-law enforcement relationship is something that is pretty amazing and I don’t think that people realize the amount of effort that goes behind the scenes from all four departments to work with Heartland (Family Services) to make sure they’re addressing that need within their community,” said Stewart.
Case managers from Salvation Army can also be brought in to help mental health consumers navigate an often confusing system. Hillabrand said that peer support organizations are also helpful when it comes to connecting vulnerable people with services and assisting those released from jail because the deck is stacked against them.
“By getting the peer support involved and identifying these inmates or persons in the community that we can help, we’re hoping that will give them the resources and assistance to reduce the amount of involvement with law enforcement because they shouldn’t be involved with law enforcement. It’s a medical issue. It’s not criminal,” said Hillabrand.
Rebecca Hancock is a retired Sarpy County deputy who is now the CIT coordinator with Lutheran Family Services. Hancock and Brad Negrete, director of urgent and crisis services for Lutheran Family Services, also sit on the Heartland CIT executive board.
“911 is the first line of defense. Someone’s having a problem, they don’t know who to call. It’s not necessarily a criminal act that spurs that person to call 911. It could be help with a person in distress and that is why these officers need to recognize that and the dispatchers as well,” said Hancock.
Negrete supervises the co-responder program with the Omaha Police Department. He said that the program was largely a response to the death of Zachary BearHeels, a man who died in police custody while experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Usually there is something that occurs that makes everybody stop and say ‘Oh, my gosh, that could happen here. We need to do something about it to make life better,” said Negrete.
Hillabrand echoed Negrete’s comments and explained that some of the best mental health response programs in the country were developed after a tragedy.
“Sarpy wanted to be proactive because we are here for the community,” said Hillabrand.
In addition to the ASAP crisis response program and CIT training offered to a growing number of responders, Sarpy County agencies have also certified large numbers of employees in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA); an eight hour training that provides an overview of mental illness and available services.
The sheriff’s department has 100 percent of its officers certified in MHFA and 30 percent are CIT certified. Hillabrand said that recent graduates from the Sarpy-Douglas law enforcement academy all have MHFA and the more intensive CIT certification will be offered at the academy as well. He also said that the goal is to lighten the burden on first responders by connecting mental health consumers with medical and social service providers.
“All this talk of defunding the police and having social workers show up at calls, Sarpy was already looking into that years ago because they realized that we need to provide help, not just cops to a lot of these calls,” said Hillabrand.
If a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis and there is a need to call 911, Hillbrand recommended directly requesting a CIT officer and explaining to the dispatcher that the individual is experiencing a mental health crisis.