MISSOULA — The Missoula Police Department and other officials started an internship program with a Masters of Social Work student in 2019, to help respond to calls involving mental health issues.
The program was put on pause when the COVID-19 pandemic hit but is starting up again next week.
During the summer of 2020, courthouse lawns were filled with Black Lives Matter protesters and at the same time, calls to "defund the police" rang throughout the country.
Police in Missoula are taking a different direction, by bringing back an internship program meant to help address the challenges officers face when responding to mental and behavioral health crises.
“We don't have the necessary training to provide all the answers and solutions. We try our best, but we just don't have the resources that we need,” said Missoula Police Department Downtown Officer Randy Krastel.
He added that a couple of years ago, he started noticing a trend, “a lot of calls that revolve around mental illness."
Even with limited resources, he tries to connect people with services, like in this instance.
"His name was Michael, I got Michael home right before Christmas. He got home to his father he didn't know even existed in Oregon, and he went there on Christmas Eve and it worked out great,” Krastel said. “Now there's no more issues in the downtown area, he's home for Christmas, everyone was kind of happy."
Downtown officers respond to calls for service in the Business Improvement District, including the Poverello Center and areas along the Clark Fork River.
Officer Jay Gillhouse says constant calls they aren't trained for can be a distraction to other police duties, “we do have to prioritize what calls for service that we get."
Crisis Intervention Training Program Manger Theresa Williams says that’s not ideal for the police or the community.
"We want to increase the outcomes to long term support, and reduce the trauma that people are experiencing in a behavioral health crisis,” Williams told MTN News.
The Missoula Police Department is now bringing in a Masters of Social Work student who is trained in mental health.
"What if we had the ability to spend a little bit more time on this person? We could hopefully get them in a better place, get the community in a better place,” Gillhouse said.
University of Montana student Doug Cook will tag along with Krastel and Gillhouse for 10 hours a week as they respond to calls.
"He spent the last semester preparing to hit the streets, and he has really great relationships with the existing homeless outreach teams,” Willaims said.
"We're excited to have him and continue building these bridges. Hopefully we'll get some people some help,” Gillhouse concluded.
Cook will start on Monday as a volunteer with the Missoula Police Department and Williams will oversee the internship.