Downtown Engagement Project: Prevention through Education and Engagement

This blog post is part of a series highlighting best practices in community policing by police departments nationwide as part of IACP’s Community Policing: The Next Generation and Task Force on 21st Century Policing projects. The projects showcase innovative and effective solutions to building trust and creating opportunities to collaborate with community stakeholders to increase public safety. These projects are funded through the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Dayton, Ohio, Police Department is a recipient of the 2015 IACP/Cisco Community Policing Award

DaytonA growing concern in many cities is how to respond to individuals with mental illness and homeless people with care and respect. Dayton, Ohio is no exception. In 2013, the Downtown Dayton Partnership, a downtown advocacy organization, received complaints from downtown businesses and other residential and entertainment stakeholders regarding individuals in the downtown area who appeared to be experiencing mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, and/or co-occurring issues. The Downtown Dayton Partnership reached out to the Dayton  Police Department (DPD) for solutions to this situation.

The frequency of Dayton police officers’ encounters with people with mental illness over the years has steadily risen. Trips to jail or local hospitals were temporary solutions and not effective in addressing long-term care for those with mental illness. Overall, these interactions have consumed a great deal of police, health care, and corrections resources.

Members of the DPD Central Patrol Operations Division joined forces with the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services Board; Goodwill/Easter Seals of the Miami Valley; Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness; and the Downtown Dayton Partnership to develop a strategy to address individuals with mental illness and homeless people in downtown Dayton. Out of this collaboration, the Downtown Engagement Project was formed.

After initial meetings between partners, all agreed that police officers do not have theDayton 2 formal training and expertise to properly assess the needs of the individuals with mental illness. In addition, partners felt the very uniform a police officer wears can sometimes be a barrier in connecting with people with mental illness, as the uniform can be symbolic of impending incarceration or an unwanted hospital stay. Engagement with mental health professionals was key to determining the needs of those with mental illness. The Downtown Engagement Project consists of the following components: information sharing, engagement, and community education in stigma reduction.

The engagement process looks like this: a certified social work professional along with a peer specialist conduct face-to-face contact with the individual to assess their current situations. Reducing stigma is important because without education, understanding, and support within the community, outreach to improve conditions for individuals with mental illness is not possible. The engagement team is a “boots on the ground” mobile field force that can spend a few minutes saying hello to a homeless individual or person with mental illness, or spend hours talking about their life history. The engagement team has more time than the average officer to get to know this population, and has the training and experience to direct them toward better solutions than hospitals or jails. To the partners of this initiative, engagement means more than interaction with those with mental illness. A community educated in the nature of mental illness is also an engaged community.

In the months after implementation, the partners met regularly to discuss how the target group was accepting the engagements. The project and the team have made a positive difference in the lives of people with mental illness and homeless individuals.

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