Mar 4, 2024 - News

Central Iowa police departments respond to crises in new ways

Waukee's team an officer and a social worker

Waukee's crisis intervention team. Photo: Courtesy of Heart of Iowa Community Services

A one-of-a-kind program in Iowa pairs police officers with social workers to better respond to people experiencing mental health crises.

Why it matters: Iowans who commit crimes stemming from mental health issues are getting support more quickly rather than going to jail, Darci Alt, CEO of the Heart of Iowa Community Services, tells Axios.

State of play: The mental health nonprofit serves Audubon, Guthrie and Dallas counties.

  • In January 2022 they created a program that pairs contracted social workers with police officers. Both are trained in crisis intervention.
  • The team works full-time weekday shifts together and responds to dispatch calls that appear mental health-related.
  • Heart of Iowa fully funds both positions through a grant from the state.

Zoom in: Waukee, Clive, Urbandale and West Des Moines are currently participating, with Guthrie County, Knoxville, Pella and Osceola joining this year.

By the numbers: Between July 2022 and November 2023, the program responded to 890 calls for service and helped divert 280 central Iowans from going to jail by instead providing mental health services.

  • 98% of those people have stayed out of jail.

The big picture: The Des Moines Police Department has its own program where officers are replaced with counselors from Broadlawns on calls where mental health appears to be a factor. It has proved successful.

The bottom line: Most municipalities have mobile crisis services, but this helps fill the gaps, Alt says.

  • Officers from smaller police departments are often responding to multiple calls.
  • But this program lets the same, consistent team respond together and stay for as long as needed.
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