BREAKDOWN The Response

In February of 2021, KSLA’s documentary crew released "BREAKDOWN: The Frontline Response to the Mental Health Crisis.” The film told how Shreveport area police officers and firefighters are dispatched to psychiatric emergencies on a daily basis and how sometimes, those calls for help turn tragic because many first responders lack the training to deal with the mentally ill.

As shown in Breakdown, Shreveport police and fire departments launched a first-of-its-kind program in Louisiana designed to train all of the city’s first responders in crisis intervention and, hopefully, deescalate mental health calls.

Following the documentary, department chiefs decided to expand the program and develop a dedicated mental health unit that may soon get dispatched to psychiatric emergencies throughout the city.

Recently, KSLA's Chief Investigative Reporter Stacey Cameron sat down with three people involved in developing this new unit: Calvin Baker Jr. with the Shreveport Fire Department, and Sgt. Rachel Alkire and Lt. Amy Bowman with the Shreveport Police Department.


Roughly 35% of people in the ArkLaTex community struggle with mental illness, and because the area lacks the resources to treat them, a growing number of those individuals end up calling 911, asking police and paramedics for psychiatric help.

"You know, we could have the conversation that, you know, police environment is not always the best fit to address mental health concerns, but people still call 911, so you know, we have to look at what are better practices for us to go out there and serve the community, and how do we connect people better to services?" said Lt. Bowman.

"People, when there's a crisis, whether it's a mental health crisis or some other crisis, they pick up the phone, they call 911, they know somebody is coming. Whether or not that's the best person to handle the crisis at the time may or may not be the case, but if we can connect caretakers, patients, family members, neighbors, whatever to resources so that the next time there's a mental health crisis or there's a mental health crisis on the horizon, that they know there's other resources and oftentimes better resources than to pick up the phone and call 911 and get law enforcement," said Sgt. Alkire.

KSLA's Stacey Cameron: "And that you're looking at the model of some type of community response model for a mental health unit... Explain to me what that is and what it might look like."

Lt. Bowman (pictured left): "What we'd like to see going forward is maybe some type of co-responder model, so if we were in unmarked cars, maybe dress down so that it reduces some of that trauma that some of the individuals may have had in recent past with law enforcement that maybe that kind of bridges that gap and makes it a little bit easier for us to kind of connect them to services that they don't have that negative interaction with law enforcement."

Cameron: "So in that co-responder model, that might also have someone who's dealing with social work from an agency, someone who might be a therapist that is able to go out with you all and speak with these people and get them into the right resources, correct?"

Lt. Bowman: "So we were actually looking at, we've had a couple of companies reach out to us on some telehealth models and what that may mean is that we have officers that are CIT trained on different shifts that might have telehealth options out there in the field that you might have somebody that's in social services that could do that basic assessment on an individual that's in crisis and kind of determine what level of care that they need. And then we kind of coordinate that care to figure out what's best practice and what resources do they really need? Because right now, a lot of the options for law enforcement only involve either taking them to the hospital under protective order or jail, and we know that that doesn't always work and that's really not the level of care that somebody might need."

Cameron: "Whose legal responsibility is it to transport a patient, once, you know, this is a mental health issue, and there's not underlying medical care?"

Sgt. Alkire (pictured right): "If it's an emergency commitment that that falls back on law enforcement, that falls back on us, that if they meet the criteria for an emergency commitment, it's our responsibility to get them to the hospital for that additional evaluation."

Cameron asked what sort of obstacles these first responders face when committing people for psychiatric services. Many people experiencing a mental health crisis do not understand that the person there with a gun and a badge is there to help them, not hurt them.

"You know, I can be a police officer, but I'm also, I can be a person that's there to help you, and if you see the uniform initially, that's all you see at first, and that's all most people see whenever a police officer gets out of a marked unit and is wearing a uniform, is they instantly think, 'Okay, somebody's going to jail.' They don't think, 'Hey, they're here to help.' And so that kind of takes that barrier down by showing up in unmarked cars and in plain clothes, and some people, depending upon their mental health diagnoses, just the appearance of a uniform or a marked unit can escalate this already somewhat volatile situation," Sgt. Alkire responded.

Baker is a training officer for the Shreveport Fire Department. He talks about when firefighters are assessing patients and they realize they're dealing with a mental health issue, what options are available to them.

"Our thing is to work better with the police and finding that solution. Do we need to put them in protective custody or do we need to take them to the ER because they're dealing with some type of medical emergency, not necessarily mental illness or mental illness and substance abuse together? So educating those guys to see that, to minimize harm from the individual, that patient," said Baker.

Calvin Baker Jr., training officer for the Shreveport Fire Department

So what's the biggest hurdle in making this "co-responder" model work? Lt. Bowman says a big part of it is identifying what services are available to people.

"Initially, we had to kind of determine what our crisis response system was in Shreveport. So that was a challenge for us because it's really kind of out of the scope of what law enforcement typically does. So we really didn't know what services do we connect people to. So we had to identify what those resources are going to be. So we didn't really understand what the crisis response was. So then we thought, you know, probably best practice was to form an advisory council of those mental health professionals, substance abuse professionals that are already doing that, that can really kind of help us determine better practices, what the community would like to see going forward, and what our policies and procedures should look like so that we can better serve those individuals," she said.

But any good idea has to have a source of money in order to come to fruition, and if this "co-responder" model is to continue, it could become costly. So where is the money coming from?

"We have to identify, you know, what are the needs going to be going forward on crisis response? And what do we need to do to fund that long-term? Is it unmarked cars that we might need? Do we need more 911 dispatchers to kind of fill in those gaps for those crisis type calls? And is it funding toward housing or whatever? So we've reached out to Community Foundation [Community Foundation of North Louisiana], Community Development [Shreveport Community Development] to look at their, you know, federal funding options, you know, grants that might be out there that might help sustain this long-term, because what we don't want to do is start something and then it failed because we don't have the proper funding for it," Lt. Bowman said.

Sgt. Rachel Alkire (left) and Lt. Amy Bowman (right), Shreveport Police Department

"One of our big resources that we're lacking, like Amy said, was bodies. It's people right now. We're just on both police and fire, everybody is hurting for people," Sgt. Alkire said.

Both the Shreveport fire and police departments are working towards making a commitment to have personnel dedicated to deal with mental health calls.

"Well, I think if you start to really look at the data and that's what we're trying to do, you know, that there are so many mental health related calls that would it be a better practice to maybe take two officers that are really good at communication a de-escalation and send them to the majority of those types of calls? I mean, you know, you're just, you're looking at number basically, so I think if we start kind of a pilot program and we look at it small with just two officers and a supervisor, and we're networking with a lot of the other agencies that already deal with mental health and substance abuse and some of the assertive care teams, you know, we'll just have to kind of assess that and it be really data driven and see what the needs are going forward," said Lt. Bowman.

This dedicated mental health unit could respond to calls that are coded as such, meaning other officers and firefighters could be freed up to respond to other emergencies, such as fires, car wrecks, and shootings.

"So if every officer is crisis intervention trained, what we would typically do is have those officers that are CIT trained go out there on those mental health calls. They would kind of make that scene safe to make sure that there's no threat, immediate threat of violence, and then you'd have these kinds of co-responder models kind of come in and be able to do a little further assessment, a little more dialogue, and maybe connect them to services, because typically, patrol officers are called to call, to call. They really don't have the time to be able to spend 30 minutes, 45 minutes on an assessment and really trying to connect people to services, and that's kind of where this co-responder model would come." -Lt. Amy Bowman, SPD

Sgt. Alkire says many of these mental health calls do not require the presence of a law enforcement officer.

"It's not, maybe not even an EMS matter, but if we, again, like I said, if we can connect they family members and the caretakers to resources that are available in the community, then the hope is down the road, it would lessen those calls to 911 so that whenever there is a crisis, they contact those resources as opposed to pulling resources from the emergency and first responders," Sgt. Alkire said.

Cameron: "Do you think some people will be surprised to see that our police department and our fire department are really serving as the stick that is stirring the drink here in Shreveport to solving this mental health crisis, at least on a street level?"

Baker (pictured left): "I think really, we're the ones who respond when they call 911, and so we're the ones first on scene. So probably, yes, they could be surprised, but you would think, you know, when somebody is in any kind of crisis and 911's called, who's going to show up? Police and fire."

As KSLA's Stacey Cameron continued talking with these three first responders, who are now working to build a mental unit in Shreveport, they shared some troubling statistics. Early in 2020, over one 20-day period, SPD encountered and transported almost 150 people that needed emergency mental healthcare to Ochsner LSU Health. That's an alarming number, especially when one considers that's just one of several hospitals where police are taking these severely ill patients.

Cameron: "Do you think the general public really has a grasp of the extent of those numbers and the extent of the crisis we face?"

Lt. Bowman: "I don't know how they could, because we didn't know, you know?"

Cameron: "Does it make it feel that this task is almost impossible?"

Lt. Bowman: "I don't think impossible."

Sgt. Alkire: "I think challenging."

Baker: "Challenges is a better... It's a need. I think it lets you know that it's more of a need, if that make sense?"

Sgt. Alkire: "It's clearly an identified need."

Cameron asked when citizens might see this mental health unit become a reality in Shreveport.

"I think our goal was like toward the end of summer, that way we have several more CIT classes so that we can kind of get most of our officers that are on the street trained. So I'm hoping by the end of the summer that we have something, something in place," Lt. Bowman replied.

The SPD officers interviewed believe there's still a stigma in the community surrounding mental illness and that it's playing a major role in the crisis.

"But nobody wants so speak out. There's a stigma with saying, 'Okay, I have a mental health diagnosis or I have a drug addiction problem or whatever.' There's a stigma that goes along with it, so I think that prevents some people from asking for help and acknowledging and admitting that they have a medical condition, 'cause that's what mental health is, it's a medical condition that they need treatment for," Sgt. Alkire said. "It's no different than if you were to break your bone or if you were to, you know, have a car accident and need medical treatment for that. It's the same thing. It's just, you know, with your mind."

It's not just the public that experiences mental health issues... it's the first responders too. Taking care of the mental health and wellbeing of officers and paramedics is also going to be a focus of this new program.

"Well, I think that that's always kind of been a stigma that, you know, law enforcement and fire department, we're supposed to be super strong and we don't talk about what it is that we see. You know, our officers are the ones that are going out there and seeing people get shot daily. You know, and we're experiencing a critical low staffing, you know. We're having to work additional manpower. So I mean, you can't not have the conversation about officer wellness, about EMS wellness. I mean, and that's, that's a challenge too because there's always been that stigma," Lt. Bowman said. "You have that blue family and we don't really talk about it, but the bottom line is we're all suffering as well. I mean, this is a community problem, so what the community experiences as a crisis, so do we. And oftentimes, we tend to internalize that. It's like, alright, get back up, next call, next call, and we have to change that."

If we can't take care of the mental health of our first responders, how can we expect them to take care of the mental health of others?

"And Amy [Bowman] said it well, I mean, you have to be able to respond to yourself before you can help somebody else, and she said it well, that we have to be able to see it within our own ranks, see that our guys, our male and female firefighters and police officers making sure that we're good to go before we respond," Baker said.

KSLA's Stacey Cameron asked the first responders if the documentary, BREAKDOWN: The Frontline Response to the Mental Health Crisis, did anything to change the perspective in the police and fire departments, and in the community, when it comes to this mental health crisis.

"Oh, I think absolutely. I mean, it's, you know, there's a shortage of people going into the profession in general, so we know there's a critical shortage just in first responders to begin with, but I mean, it highlights the emphasis that, you know, our nation is struggling. Our communities are struggling. Individuals are struggling. I mean, we're just coming out of this pandemic, and so we see that there's a need to do things differently," Lt. Bowman responded. "We don't exactly always know how that's going to look, but I think having that awareness you all kind of brought that to the forefront and, you know, it's helpful for us. It's helpful for the agencies to see, well, how do we determine what better practices? So you guys were very helpful in that, and not to mention, I think from that program, we've had a lot of agencies reach out to us to really want to be a part of that."

Baker: "And I also have a, we've actually had a company of officers that want that knowledge, want education, can't wait to get into that crisis intervention training. So that's the buy-in from the police department and the fire department. They actually want that training."

Cameron: "Do you think that film helped to break down some barriers in terms of communication from community partners, as well as people in your own agencies and even your bosses?"

Lt. Bowman: "I think it's definitely started conversations between all of us as to what each agency can do better. You know, what our challenges are going to be. But yeah, those conversations kind of come up frequently within all of our organizations because we know that there's a need out there. We're just trying to figure out what's the best practice. How do we change our policies and procedures and how do we get the funding sources? I mean, I know for the police department, we're over 100 officers down. How do we get the funding source going forward to really develop a strong mental health team that's going to be able to go out there and do that? So I think you guys bringing that to the forefront is really kind of helped us and our overall goal and that's the funding source on how do we make this work well? And I think that you shine a light on an issue."

Sgt. Alkire: "I mean, everybody knows it's there, but again, it's a mountain. And how do you start to even try to climb that mountain? So anytime that you can shine a light on it and educate people, the public, the officers, the administration, city, and the police and fire administration, I think that starts conversations. And anytime you have people willing to come to the table and sit down and talk about an issue and start trying to come up with resolutions, it's always beneficial."

While the Shreveport police and fire departments are still working to get their mental health unit out on the street, they've already taken one big step: organizing an advisory board of people working in the mental health field, as well as people whose lives have been impacted by mental illness. The board will consult and help identify local partners police and fire can work with when they get called to help someone falling into crisis.

Lt. Bowman: "Well, we're hoping to maybe meet next month and then can continue to do that on a monthly basis, but we will have executive directors from different hospitals that already deal with, mental health issues, substance abuse organizations that are already kind of in place here, both public and private funding, city council, our commissioners. So we have representatives kind of all across the board."

Cameron: "Having all the players at the table then is essentially having experts in every area, able to come together and feel that they have their voices heard and to build a model that will be sustainable here in Shreveport?"

Lt. Bowman: "Correct."

So why hasn't this cooperation between departments happened before? These three first responders believe there was a lack of communication and understanding.

"Oh absolutely. I think just our outreach to these organizations, they're definitely wanting to collaborate and have those conversations so that we can identify where the gaps in services are and what we need to focus on the crisis response for Shreveport and how that's going to look. So they've been extremely receptive. Every organization that we've reached out to has been extremely receptive, and then we have ones that continue to call us daily," Lt. Bowman said.

"As you all work this, do you have some autonomy with your chiefs in how you do this and how you create that, and even how you speak with someone like me in the media to be able to do this?" Cameron asked. "Because let's be honest, you were just talking here how you're getting educated almost daily on the size of this issue. Are you given the autonomy that you really need to make this happen?"

"I think the public wants it to happen," Lt. Bowman replied. "I think our organization is definitely supportive of what we're doing, but again, I don't think both of our agencies understand exactly how that's going to look, and I think that's kind of why we're reaching out to other organizations to kind of say, what is our, you know, crisis response model here?"

"And I do know that our administration, based on our meetings with our administration and the meetings that we've had with the fire administration, they're all in, I mean, they're bought in. They understand that there's a need there," Sgt. Alkire responded. "They understand that there's a need to do things different than what we have been doing in the past."

"Well, I'll peel back the skin on the orange and tell you why I asked that question," Cameron said. "Because unlike some other areas that I deal with in the media, the police department and the fire department are really giving me great access to you all, and we don't have public information officers or chiefs intimately involved in guiding the questions. You guys are being allowed to speak freely."

"And I think a lot of that is because they want the public to understand as agencies we recognize there is a need for change. There is a need. And I think they want the public to understand," Sgt. Alkire said. "We're trying. We may not have it all figured out, we may not have all the answers, but we're trying, we're trying to do better, and so I think that that's the message they want to push out is that, look, we're trying to get it right."

BREAKDOWN: The Frontline Response to the Mental Health Crisis




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