Mental health officers

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval introduces the department's new unit of officers who will work to help residents suffering from mental illness.

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval on Monday criticized state and local agencies that he said have not acted urgently enough to address shortcomings in the mental health system.

Koval’s sharp words for those service providers came in a press conference and blog post in which he introduced a new department initiative aimed at better helping people who suffer from mental illness.

Starting next month, the unit of five mental health officers will work proactively with mentally ill people around the city to help them find services before problems escalate, Koval said.

Police officers, the chief said, must often make up for flaws in a system he called “fractured” and “in dire need of support.” While traditional service providers recognize those problems, Koval said, those good intentions have not led to needed changes.

“I can’t wait anymore,” Koval said. “I’m tired of the rhetoric, I’m tired of the political posturing, I’m tired of the delay and discounting and minimizing and rationalizing.

“This department is going to stand up, be recognized, and at least try to make a valiant effort to do more.”

Officials with the state Department of Health Services pointed to $30 million in new funding for mental health initiatives in the last state budget as a sign they have taken action on the issue. Those at the county level said they are also working to better address mental health care locally.

Theresa Bednarek, who works with the crisis unit at Journey Mental Health Center, the lead agency Dane County contracts with for mental health services, said she agreed with Koval. Many service providers have also been frustrated by the lack of action, she said.

“We talk a good game but we don’t see a lot of results,” Bednarek said.

The program Koval introduced Monday grew out of another department initiative in which officers worked as liaisons between police and mentally ill people.

While the liaison program has been valuable, Koval said that work was done on top of officers’ patrol duties, forcing them into a balancing act between helping the mentally ill and responding to their usual calls for service, Koval said.

Mental health officers, meanwhile, will solely focus on those issues — working with service providers, mentally ill people and their families to make sure they are getting the help they need, Koval said, rather than letting an illness spiral out of control.

“I want these officers to be able to get in front of these compelling cases before they become runaway tragedies,” Koval said.

Every Madison police officer receives training on how to interact with people experiencing a mental health crisis, Koval said, and that training continues throughout officers’ careers. Those who were chosen for the new unit have thrown themselves into the mental health field further through training and extensive work with mentally ill people, police said.

That work has also given the officers crucial experience in navigating the mental health system, said Capt. Kristen Roman, who oversees the unit.

“They’ve been working for years on these issues,” Roman said. “They’re very familiar with the challenges of the system.”

‘Deaf ear’ from state

While Koval said he was happy to introduce the new mental health officers on Monday, he was decidedly less enthusiastic about what he saw as a lack of action on mental illness problems elsewhere.

“We have to do more,” Koval said of his department, “because quite frankly, I haven’t seen an awful lot of assistance coming to me through the state or through the county or through other means.”

One of the biggest problems Koval identified was a decision by the state Department of Health Services last April to no longer accept emergency civil detentions at Mendota Mental Health Institute on Madison’s North Side.

With that option unavailable, Koval said, police must drive someone experiencing a mental health crisis to Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh — potentially exacerbating the patient’s problems and taking officers out of the field.

The state was turning a “deaf ear” to local communities with that policy, Koval said.

Asked about Koval’s criticism, Department of Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said the state decided to stop accepting emergency detentions at Mendota in an effort to concentrate and improve civil services at Winnebago.

Miller also said Dane County has other facilities where police can take people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The city of Madison has sued the state to reverse the policy, but the case has not been resolved.

County funding issue

Dave Delap, who works with Journey Mental Health Center’s Community Treatment Alternatives program, said Koval’s criticism echoes what many local treatment providers have been saying for years about the resources dedicated to mental health initiatives.

Delap said Dane County has not increased Journey’s funding for mental health services since 2003, and spends 13 percent less per capita on mental health care than other Wisconsin counties.

The county “has really started to erode our mental health system … through lack of funding,” Delap said.

Josh Wescott, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, said the county recently increased funding for mental health services in area schools. Parisi has also ordered a review of the county’s mental health care spending to guide budget decisions in the coming year, Wescott said.

Still, Delap said that as a result of the county’s shortcomings, “More people are probably winding up coming to the attention of the police, and more people then are winding up in the Dane County Jail instead of receiving community mental health services.”


Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.