Credited by LifeSkills for bringing together police and mental health professionals to serve the city’s mentally ill population, Bowling Green Police Department Capt. Melanie Watts has been named the Crisis Intervention Team Officer of the Year for this region after receiving the nomination from LifeSkills.

“I don’t look at it as an award for me,” Watts said. “I look at it as an award for the department. It has been a group effort to improve the service to the mentally ill.”

Watts, a 17-year veteran of the police force, is the department’s liaison with LifeSkills, the regional nonprofit agency that contracts with the Kentucky Department for Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addiction Services to provide behavioral health and addiction services to people living in Warren and nine other surrounding counties. In addition to serving a clientele seeking services, LifeSkills mental health professionals also provide evaluations for people who are in jail and for people who have been picked up by the police for emergency mental detentions. 

Watts began dialogue with LifeSkills in 2007. By 2009, regular meetings began between LifeSkills and law enforcement. In 2010, BGPD sent 34 officers, including Watts, through CIT training, LifeSkills president and chief executive officer Alice Simpson wrote in her nominating letter to the Kentucky Crisis Intervention Team, a grant-funded program of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 

Communication between law enforcement and LifeSkills has “improved significantly,” said Shelley Carter, vice president of behavioral health at LifeSkills. “Just because we come to the table now on a regular basis, I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call them. Melanie does the same. That just didn’t happen before.”

“Captain Watts is a determined and intelligent police officer who has a passion for this mission; without her support we would not be where we are today,” Simpson wrote in her letter. “She has assisted us in forging partnerships with the hospitals and other providers. In her role, Captain Watts has kept the focus on officer safety while educating her peers and others about using the CIT model and approaches that are the standards of excellence with respect to treatment of persons with mental illness.”

Watts will receive the award June 21 in Lexington, said Denise Spratt, director of the Kentucky Crisis Intervention Team.

Anyone in the region can nominate a police officer for the award, Spratt said. A conference committee of the Kentucky Crisis Intervention Team selects the winner from each region in which an officer is nominated.

“I strongly support and fully support Alice’s recommendation,” Bowling Green Police Chief Doug Hawkins said.

Police here have daily contact with people who have mental illnesses. More than 40 of the city’s 110 sworn police personnel are trained in crisis intervention, Watts said.

“It gives you more of an appreciation of what’s going on and also patience to handle the crisis that they are in at the time,” Officer Jan Tuttle said. Tuttle is one of the city’s CIT-trained officers. “You are working together with them to get them help instead of putting (the mentally ill) in jail.”

When police are notified about someone who is suspected of needing mental health help, police answer the call and must determine if that person is a danger to themselves or others. If her or she is deemed as such, officers will fill out an emergency mental detention citation and take the person to LifeSkills, where a qualified mental health care professional evaluates the person and determines whether he or she meets certification requirements for further treatment. 

If he or she meets those requirements, a judge will be asked to sign a transport order to send the person to Western State Hospital in Hopkinsville for a period of involuntary hospitalization aimed at stabilizing the patient. If the patient does not meet certification requirements, LifeSkills will offer local mental health assistance through its agency, and police will take the person home if he or she lives in Warren County. 

Bowling Green police have seen a steady increase in the number of citations written for emergency mental detentions, Watts said. In 2004, city police handled 183 such detention cases. The next year, that number climbed to 357. Last year, city police juggled 586 of those cases. As of April 30, BGPD has handled 208 cases for 2012.

LifeSkills credits Watts for facilitating more communication between the police department and the agency charged with caring for the community’s mentally ill patients. Watts is the chairwoman for the local CIT committee, which meets every other month. The group includes representatives from area law enforcement agencies as well as hospitals, LifeSkills, jailers, community resource agencies and other health care providers.  

The police department chose to participate in the CIT program to become part of the problem-solving work group to best address mental health care needs of those who come into contact with police, Hawkins said.

Watts has more “know how” than any other local law enforcement officer when it comes to dealing with city’s mentally ill, Warren County Jailer Jackie Strode said.

“I think the award is very well deserved for a person who is committed to doing everything she can to help the mentally ill to receive treatment and not to be housed in jails, for lack of a better place for them to be,” Strode said.

“When we walk into the room, everything can be put on the table; the good, bad and ugly,” Strode said about the CIT committee. “When we leave the room, we have come to a conclusion that we can change things or we cannot change things, but we still all work together, and we still all want to work together to do whatever we can for the mentally ill.”

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