Mayor weighing success of pilot mental health diversion program

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Marion County Sheriff John Layton has often lamented that his jail is the largest mental health residential care facility in the state of Indiana with hundreds of inmates struggling daily with psychiatric or substance abuse issues.

In an attempt to relieve Marion County’s crowded jail and criminal justice system, a six-month-long pilot program to off-ramp afflicted east side residents into referral or treatment as opposed to incarceration has technically ended but continues while Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office evaluates its success.

The Mobile Crisis Assistance Team program, known as MCAT, pairs a police officer, a paramedic and a license mental health professional to cruise IMPD’s East District 24/7, responding to calls for help that may rise only to the level of minor crimes but often are simply cries for help.

“We believe it is the first in the nation emergent response crisis assistance team,” said Paul Babcock, Director of Public Health & Safety. “In this response pre-arrest to alleviate an officer paramedic or firefighter from the scene to allow them to get back to being on duty while the MCAT team utilizes its specializations to resolve the crisis at hand.”

Since Aug. 1 of last year, the four MCATs assigned to the cover the east side have taken 837 runs, resulting in arrests in less than five percent of the calls.

Two-thirds of the MCAT clients have been transported either to a hospital, the Reuben Engagement Center or another crisis assessment center or other location.

The MCAT crew has multiple options, from law enforcement to treatment to service referral, for resolving an immediate dilemma.

“They pull upon their experience to find the best solution that is not jail for someone who doesn’t need to be going to jail,” said IMPD Sgt. Catherine Cummings, coordinator of the MCAT pilot program. “Often times these people are sick, they’re in crisis, they may have committed a minor crime that goes along with all of those feelings but that’s not necessarily the reason behind it. It's not because they’re bad people and they’re just trying to be bad. Something is happening that is causing the crisis.”

Currently when IMPD officers encounter someone who is homeless and exhibiting mental health or substance abuse behaviors, that person is referred to the Reuben Engagement Center on the second floor the former Arrestee Processing Center downtown in the 700 block of East Market Street.

At the center, 30 beds have been set aside for temporary housing to provide clients with a location to sort out their shelter and mental health referral options while developing a more sustained solution.

“It's hopefully providing a place for people before they get arrested to get help instead of going to jail so it’s the first step in a diversion process,” said Babcock.

Opened in January of last year, Reuben has been without a permanent director for the last six months with new leadership set to come on board by April 1.

Babcock said later this spring, the doors of Reuben will be opened to non-homeless referrals from MCAT.

Out on the East District, IMPD Officer Melissa Lemrick and her partners responded to an apartment complex where a woman sought assistance for unfamiliar shadows in her home.

During her previous assignment on the city’s southwest side, Lemrick came to know the residents of her community with similar mental health issues.

“It did get frustrating because you felt like you didn’t always have the resources or know what to do even though you were back and forth at that house all the time so it became quite frustrating.”

Lemrick recalls the former clients and families who have thanked her for intervention instead of incarceration that led to assistance instead of arrest.

The Hogsett Administration estimates it would cost a million dollars annually per IMPD district to expand the MCAT program citywide.

During a recent briefing before criminal justice officials, Layton’s staff estimated the jail system in Marion County is currently at 99 percent capacity, about four percent above what the sheriff considers the crisis stage.

There are 2,507 beds in Marion County’s current jail system.

“Not everyone needs to go to jail,” said Cummings, “and then that way our jail space and our court space is saved for the people who really need that, who are a danger to the community they can be the ones in the jail and in the court system.”