WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Police Department was awarded a $525,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Association to partner with the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, according to Police Chief James Abbott at the Township Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 4. The grant will be used to send mental health professionals out with police officers as co-responders when the department receives a call involving a person with a mental health issue. The program will run for three years.
“From July 2019 to July 2020, we found that we had 393 mental health calls that resulted in 30 incidents of use of force,” Abbott said at the meeting. “The way use of force is tracked in New Jersey, every officer that is involved has to submit a report. So those 30 incidents resulted in 83 different filings from 83 officers.”
According to Abbott, some of the people from those 30 incidents who needed help for a mental health crisis were forced into ambulances to be taken to hospitals, where they would be better served than a penal institution. But the department was concerned about the mental health calls, so township attorney Richard Trenk introduced Abbott to MHAEM Chief Executive Officer Robert Davidson. The WOPD began a pilot program with the organization in 2020.
“There’s really not that many in the nation,” Abbott said about the pilot program, which he said is the first in the state. “Every day, when I read the periodicals about what’s going on in policing around the country, I see another major city has started this. But not many of them are the 50,000 people type of municipalities. They’re usually big cities.”
After Mayor Robert Parisi asked him to explain the day-to-day mechanics of how the program works, Abbott said that the dispatchers receive training to know what guidance to give people who called 9-1-1 and what information to give to the police officers. The dispatchers also reach out to the mental health responders, who arrive with the police at the scene.
“This works out best for everyone, because sometimes, with mentally unstable persons, they can injure someone. So it’s good to have a police officer there, in case they need to intervene with force,” Abbott said. “But (the mental health responders are) there to give us guidance and to take the lead oftentimes, when they can, because they’re better equipped and better trained than we are with this.”
Trenk said that the mental health professionals will follow up with the family members of the person who was in crisis after the initial call, and with the hospital if the person is taken to one.
“The goal of getting people care and getting them better and stabilized is furthered by the social workers involved,” Trenk said at the meeting. “This is really a comprehensive program that the goal, obviously, is that every call that may implicate these issues have a co-responder, because it just makes a lot more sense.”
Other towns in the state have started similar programs, as has the New Jersey State Police. The grant will be matched by the township by 20 percent in the first two years and 40 percent in the third year.
“(MHAEM does) training for us and they also review our body camera footage,” Abbott said, adding that he and Trenk had to ask Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II for special permission to allow the organization to see the footage. “Anyone in crisis is considered a medical call, so that footage can’t be viewed outside of the law enforcement entity that films it. I really appreciate him for seeing the utility in this.”
Out of all the bodycam footage that MHAEM has reviewed from the WOPD, there have been four instances where the organization said the responding officers could have done better.
“The officers by and large do a very good job, but the value of having Essex–Morris there on these calls is immeasurable,” Abbott said. “They’ve been a great partner, and I can’t thank them enough for everything they do for the people of West Orange and the people most in need.”