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Wisconsinites support mental health officers in police departments, survey shows

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Posted at 7:05 PM, May 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-06 20:12:39-04

FOX VALLEY (NBC 26) — A new survey shows many people in Wisconsin are in favor of having mental health officers in their local police force and would even be willing to pay for the position.

Deputy Josh Hopkins took on that role at the Outagamie County Sheriff's Office more than two years ago. He transitioned from patrol into his current position as the county's behavioral health officer, where he responds to and investigates mental health related calls, connects people with resources and helps fellow officers see situations through a different lens.

Hopkins also works with other agencies to enhance or create behavioral health programs.

"As law enforcement, we are interacting with a lot of calls that have a mental health component to the call," Hopkins said. "Now that my position has been around and we’re seeing individuals get more in touch with mental health resources, the officers are responding to this call and they’re reaching out to me, or they just recognize it themselves that there was a mental health aspect to this call, so how should we approach this to best benefit the citizen and best benefit the other citizens of Outagamie County to create long-term support.”

Elsewhere in the Fox Valley, a furry friend helps the Oshkosh Police Department on similar calls.

Magic is the department's therapy dog and works alongside Scott Sopata, OPD's behavioral health officer.

"Her job is to bring that calm and bring that support so people feel a little bit more comfortable talking with either an officer or a social worker," Sopata said.

Sopata became the department's first behavioral health officer about six months ago. He responds to high priority crisis calls to deescalate situations and bridge the gap between area mental health services and law enforcement.

“We would divert them to crisis, but we didn’t do any follow up after that. We didn’t make sure that they were sticking to their plan and really giving them a safe person to talk to if they were maybe about to go into a crisis, or if things weren’t going to plan and they wanted some other options," Sopata said. "We didn't have a safety plan for them. So what my position really is, is to bridge that gap, and have a 24 hour service that people can call if they’re having a difficult time, and get them into services to make sure that if something’s not going right that we can give them extra tools to make sure we can help them with their crisis.”

Hopkins' position came together thanks to a privately funded grant. Sopata and Magic's jobs are funded through the Oshkosh Police Department's budget. Both reflect the results of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association's latest survey, which highlights positive public support for these roles.

In that poll, 67% of respondents said they support increasing spending for social programs, but not at the expense of their police force. 64% of those surveyed said they're in favor of increasing local taxes for specially-trained mental health officers.

"For agencies that have already taken those steps to make some of those investments, knowing that in those areas that that spending has such high public support, it's got to be gratifying and kind of reinforces those efforts," said Jim Palmer, WPPA executive director. “This is something that can help inform the decision making of state and local policymakers.”

Outagamie County Sheriff's Office started a S.A.F.E program, which allows community members to voluntarily share behavioral health conditions and how first responders can best help if they're called to an emergency.

Oshkosh Police Department is partnering with Winnebago County Human Services to add a crisis worker to the behavioral health program. That person goes to calls with Sopata and Magic to help deescalate, support and recommend services. It's part of a temporary project that will be reevaluated in two years.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Oshkosh is hosting a 5K run for mental health and suicide awareness beginning 9 a.m. Saturday at Oshkosh North High School. Sopata and Magic will be there to provide additional support.