FOND DU LAC (NBC 26) — The Fond du Lac Police Department is finding a new way to address what it considers a major issue in the community: mental health and substance abuse crises.
This summer, the department launched a new team consisting of a social worker and an officer specializing in mental health and wellness.
Social worker Kimberly Miller joined the team in June. She's employed by the Fond du Lac's department of community programs and works full-time at the police station. When police receive a call pertaining to a mental health emergency, Miller meets them at the scene.
"There's a specific question that I ask to start doing like a risk assessment, whether that be for like a suicide risk assessment or violence risk assessment, to try to get all that information and start determining what type of safety concerns there are," Miller said.
Once Miller has gathered information, she begins to talk with the individual affected in a way that she said could cause less anxiety than a traditional police approach.
"One thing is I always wear plain clothes," Miller said. "I don't have like a uniform. I don't have a badge. I don't carry a gun or any weapons on me. So sometimes my presence as a plain-clothes person can even help to escalate a situation compared to an officer who's coming in uniform with their gear."
She said that so far, she's been on about 80 calls, and only about 1% of those have resulted in the individual going to jail. In most cases, she said she's able to connect them with other behavioral health resources.
"I'm seeing somebody in one of their worst moments of their life and it can, I can come in and make such an impact on that day and get them the help that they need when they might not necessarily know how to get the help themselves," Miller said.
Miller works alongside Brooke Mathes, who became a sworn Fond du Lac Police Officer in 2019, and started as the mental health and wellness police specialist in August.
'I have worked here for three and a half years now, and you always find your little niche in things," Mathes said. "And whenever I was working on mental health calls, I always felt like I'm making a difference because you have those people that are like, 'Oh, like this officer really cares,' or I was able to de-escalate and it's just a good feeling."
Mathes said when she worked the second shift dealing with these cases, she couldn't provide as much support to people in distress.
"You're going to a call, you're coming, finding the problem... you're trying to put a bandaid on it real fast, and then you're moving to the next call," Mathes said.
She says she's noticed a difference between this new approach and the traditional police response to these crises.
"This is a lot different because we want to be able to spend time with those people going through mental health crises and to have someone who's actually assigned to talk to those people and to not rush through a call and to find resources for them," Mathes said.
Mathes says another important role of the team is to follow up with the people they meet on-scene.
"I'll call those people and sometimes you can hear on the phone they're like, ‘Oh, like, that's nice that someone called me and like actually cares, right? It's not that the officer just left and that was it," Mathes said.
The department decided to pursue this solution in part because of a 2021 assessment by SSM Health that identified mental health as an area of improvement for the community.
The team says they hope this program can connect more people to the services they need, and prevent people living with mental illness from immediately entering the criminal justice system.
If you are in imminent danger or experiencing a medical emergency call 9-1-1. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call the 24/7 suicide and crisis lifeline at 9-8-8. To reach out to the FDLPD Co-Response Team, call the Fond du Lac County Communications Center non-emergency line at 920-906-5555.