Sara Gawor and Elisa Howell

Clinician manager Sara Gawor, left and Sgt. Elisa Howell are part of the Crisis Intervention Response Team, the Denton Police Department’s mental health unit. The team handled about 690 cases within its first couple of months of operating, and they’re now doing follow-ups.

With the Denton Police Department’s mental health unit now at work, the program’s leads say they can get a better idea of what types of mental health crises Denton residents are dealing with.

Police Chief Frank Dixon said last year this team could curb people from the criminal justice system if what they truly need is an intervention. The unit, called the Crisis Intervention Response Team, had about 690 cases of people dealing with crises between May and August — the first two months of operation.

CIRT clinician manager Sara Gawor and Sgt. Elisa Howell, the team’s lead on the police response side, supervise the three pairs of officers and clinicians who are paired up for calls.

The team, along with the changes at the Police Department that followed the team’s creation, are helping the department gather more accurate data on mental health in the city.

While the department was building the Crisis Intervention Response Team, Howell said it became a requirement for police to write reports for mental health calls so they could have clear data. In an email Friday, she said Denton officers have only traditionally been required to write reports on criminal offenses.

“Mental health calls typically don’t involve an offense having occurred,” Howell said. “Despite there not being mandatory reporting, documentation was still occurring through the 911 call record and any notes the officer added into the call for service.”

She said she knew they had a lot of mental health-related calls come into dispatchers, so she told the team to buckle up once they could kick off.

“They have a high caseload,” Howell said. “I would say that it rivals what detectives have.”

Gawor said she wasn’t expecting this type of caseload.

“Because I’m not as familiar with the calls for service that were coming into the PD since I’ve only been here a year, I was surprised and almost kind of astounded, because my concern was: Where were all these going, or how were these handled before?” Gawor said.

Howell said the pairs listen to the radio to get information on incoming calls. Sometimes a patrol officer not on the team will request CIRT’s help on a call after recognizing there’s a mental health problem, or the pair can overtake a call they hear on the radio.

Suzanne Kaletta, a public safety communication division manager, said Monday that an eventual goal is for the Denton dispatch center to have clinicians there to help people calling with a crisis as well.

Once the pair arrives, Howell said they start de-escalating a crisis.

“The officer’s main concern when they’re on scene is to make sure that everything is safe. And then the clinician — this is really what is their expertise, so they’ll start engaging with the subject,” she said. “They know clinical questions that they need to ask to assess the individual and then they talk with their partner, the officer, to arrive at a decision on what needs to be done.”

This decision could mean realizing the subject just needs a referral to resources, doing an emergency detainment for a behavioral health hospital, or walking away and following up later.

A big part of these cases is the follow-ups. Although it depends on the team’s current caseload volume, Howell said they try to start those check-ins as quickly as possible, especially when those people reach out to them directly.

Gawor said in an email Friday they try to meet the person again face-to-face to connect them to services, but added that the follow-up can happen over the phone or through email.

“We are looking to assess the individual after the incident, provide education, open the door for our support, prevent future calls for service when possible and act as a liaison to help facilitate connecting them to any needed services,” she said. “Some of our community members have no idea where to turn to get help and they have no family/friend support.”

It’s a lot to do because it’s only Gawor and Howell sorting through those cases again to assign them out to their team.

Gawor said they close cases when they can’t find the individual, if they refuse to work with the response team, if the team has given them as many services as they can and the therapeutic connection isn’t beneficial anymore, or if the person isn’t in danger anymore or is improving.

Gawor acknowledged it’s unrealistic to meet everyone every time for a long engagement due to the high caseload.

“However, [the team] prioritize cases based on acuity (meaning higher risk clients),” Gawor said in an email. “We also want to spend more time working with the mental health consumers in the community that are receptive of our services, appreciative and truly benefiting from the encounters.”

They’ve found that most of their mental health cases involve people going through a type of psychosis and losing touch with reality.

“[Responding is] about meeting them where they’re at,” Gawor said. “So, understanding that to them, their delusions are very real, and acknowledging the feelings and the accompanying fear around that. … You’re working with them in crisis in this moment to keep them safe and to keep them as grounded as you possibly can.”

Gawor and Howell said it’s hard to narrow down any one story of success they’ve had in the last few months, but Howell did recall one young girl who wasn’t speaking.

“Most recently, one of the teams, they helped a young girl who had stopped talking and they got her connected to a music therapy program,” she said. “And she’s talking again, so I thought that was an amazing story.”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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