Dane County Executive Joe Parisi proposed a new program for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office to integrate mental health services in emergency responses through an internet-connected tablet.

Rural areas in Wisconsin struggle to obtain adequate levels of access to mental health resources. The proposed internet-connected tablet aims to be an interface to instantly connect someone involved in an emergency situation with a mental health specialist, according to The Cap Times.

This is designed to de-escalate the situation and replace an in-person specialist with a virtual one, increasing support levels across rural regions and reducing the risk to mental health services, according to The Cap Times.

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“We’ve been working for a number of years to divert people in crisis out of the criminal justice system [jail], when what they really need is help,” Parisi said in an interview with The Badger Herald. “That’s the motivation behind this proposal. Tablets can provide a means to avoid those that really need help, being taken to jail.”

Current mental health resources in Dane County include a 24-hour hotline and collaboration with Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. The Behavioral Health Resource Center is a resource center available to assist Dane County residents navigating mental health and substance abuse services in Dane County.

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Parisi said the Dane County resources are not available around the clock and do not have the outreach demanded from rural areas because of limited resources, and the new budget proposal aims to address these issues.

Additionally, Parisi said the CAHOOTS initiative is largely focused on Madison and does not fully address demands from areas outside the city.

The initiative, costing an approximate $250,000, would be incorporated in the 2022 budget and includes the cost of setting up the equipment, the tablets themselves, the internet service provider costs for the tablets and the mental health specialists who communicate through the tablets, according to The Cap Times.

“While deputies receive training to handle volatile situations involving mental health services, they are not specialists and it may be frightening to see a uniformed officer approach you,” Parisi said. “The tablet acts as a neutral third party, making it easier to connect with trusted, trained professionals who can work with you.”

The aim of the tablet is to provide contact with a non-threatening expert. If implemented correctly, the sheriff’s office hopes to reduce the number of people sent through the criminal justice system and increase the number of people with access to mental health support, Parisi said.

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Dane County Sheriff’s Office Public Information and Education Officer Elise Schaffer said the county does not have the resources to respond to all of its calls. 

“While we do have embedded mental health workers working with sheriff deputies, we do not have the resources to respond in-person to every call, especially in rural areas,” Schaffer said.

This initiative was inspired by an existing program in Cook County, Illinois, where it has been successful on dozens of occasions, according to reporting by ABC 7 Chicago. The same article quotes Oak Lawn Police Chief Daniel Vittorio who mentioned the ease of connecting to a mental health professional within seconds.

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The program also aims to reduce the jail population in Dane County. Last year, Dane County approved a $148 million appropriation to the Jail Consolidation Project for the addition of a South Tower. The project received widespread dissent from people who believed the funds should be diverted to initiatives to keep people out of jail, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Also, during the budget season in Nov. 2020, the Dane County Board of Supervisors voted against funding a mental health center and did not defund the Sherriff’s Office despite widespread community activism following the Black Lives Matter protests.

Beginning Oct. 4, the University of Wisconsin Police Department announced its partnership with the University Health Services to provide two mental health professionals to support a mental health crisis, according to a notification article on the UWPD website.

This collaboration came after significant activism and organizing from the student community following a post on the BIPOC at Wisco Instagram page documenting a negative experience a student had had with a UWPD officer during a mental health crisis call.

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This UWPD project has been in planning since fall 2020 and will include several rotating UHS mental clinicians working in pairs and accompanying UWPD officers. 

Parisi said Roman has a “strong dedication” towards mental health support but said the new Dane County Sheriff’s Office will not necessarily impact UW-Madison students.

“The tablets won’t really impact the university and its students as it comes under the city of Madison jurisdiction,” Parisi said. “However, the chief of UWPD, Roman, is heavily invested in servicing mental health issues. That being said, I’m sure a lot of departments will be watching this project to see how it works and if there is a need to develop this niche.”