NORTON SHORES, Mich. (WOOD) — Police departments around Muskegon are embracing a new strategy that brings in mental health workers to de-escalate situations involving a person in crisis.

Three trained mental health clinicians, employed by HealthWest, are now embedded inside police departments: Michelle Pouch is working with Muskegon Police Department; Angela Smith is staffed with the Muskegon Heights Police Department and Kerry Fretty with the Norton Shores Police Department.

The clinicians work alongside officers on-duty and are “readily available” to help those experiencing a behavioral health crisis and connect them with lasting care.

“This is just an innovative, without a doubt necessary tool in our community to impact effectively persons experiencing crisis,” HealthWest Clinical Manager Heather Wiegand told News 8.

Wiegand said the mental health clinicians respond to situations ranging from domestic violence, wellness checks, substance abuse problems, mental illness and more.

Fretty rides along with Norton Shores police officers each day during the week. She’s right there as officers respond to 911 calls involving someone experiencing behavioral health crisis. If it’s safe to do so, she often goes into the residence first to talk the person down.

Norton Shores Police Chief Marc Vanderstelt said some going through a crisis may respond better if Fretty is involved.

“Officers may identify they’ll have a better interaction if Kerry just goes and speaks with these individuals than actually having officers involved,” Vanderstelt said. “That’s one of our goals.”

In situations where it’s deemed safe for Fretty to intervene, police take a “stand-back” approach, allowing her to speak to the person while officers monitor from a distance.

“Individuals from the community are more apt to speak to her sometimes than somebody in a uniform,” Vanderstelt said. “Law enforcement, we’re the first ones being called there, but we don’t necessarily have all the tools or the schooling or the education how to handle those properly. So having somebody that has that education, has that knowledge of all the other resources we can provide to our citizens, it’s instrumental.”

Fretty has been present in standoff situations since she started in February. While those situations may be too dangerous for her to be directly involved, Vanderstelt said she listens in as officers negotiate with a suspect and offers ideas to help them end the situation peacefully.

Wiegand said that when mental health clinicians work directly with those in crisis, they focus on QPR: question, persuade, refer. It’s a form of suicide prevention training, with workers recognizing the warning signs and quickly determining if the person needs to go to the emergency room or receive psychiatric intervention.

“We’re looking for those individuals to have knowledge about how to really pick up on the signs and symptoms,” Wiegand explained. “Does this person in front of me require treatment? They have that solid knowledge.”

After the situation ends, law enforcement can submit a mental health referral. That’s when clinicians often go back to the same home and connect the resident with long-term care.

Fretty’s presence has also led to an unintended but appreciated result: mental health help for officers themselves.

“While they’re riding along with Kerry, they’re also getting some personal care, too,” Vanderstelt said. “That’s very important to me as a big picture that our officers are provided some mental health care from the situations they see on a daily basis.”

The project began in October 2022 through a partnership with Michigan State Police. MSP issued the police departments a $750,000 grant thanks to funding from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. The grant supports all three workers’ positions through September 2024. Wiegand hopes to make the program permanent and plans to ask cities to guarantee the positions through their yearly budgets.