Omaha Police Department seeks to add mental health crisis co-responders

The Omaha Police Department wants to beef up its response to situations that involve a mental health crisis.
Published: Oct. 20, 2020 at 9:04 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The Omaha Police Department wants to beef up its response to situations that involve a mental health crisis.

Therapists have been helping officers on these calls since last year, now police want to hire their own.

Tragedy struck three years ago, when four Omaha police officers were called to a disturbance in the middle of the night.

They ended up tazing and punching Zachary Bearheels who had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He died.

“They’re not trained therapists or not social workers, their job is to uphold the law,” said Grace Johnson, member of Omaha’s Native American Advisory Board and dual-licensed mental health therapist.

Johnson was stunned when she first saw the video three years ago. After the tragedy, she helped train officers respond better.

The Omaha City Council is now being asked to create two city positions: a mental health crisis co-responder and a team leader who would provide behavioral expertise to police.

Johnson says it’s a step forward.

“I do hope that they work to recruit minority therapists, if possible, it’s needed here in the city because some of the people they respond to are obviously going to be people of color,” she said.

OPD is asking for this after initiating its own co-responder model with Lutheran Family Services thanks to a 2019 grant.

A police spokesperson tells 6 News mental health practitioners use things like tone of voice, and non-threatening and reassuring language and gestures to de-escalate calls involving behavioral health.

They have more training and understand the issues, resources, and know what’s going on more quickly.

“This response to that incident has been coming for a couple years,” Johnson said.

The mental health co-responders would be embedded in Omaha police precincts.

On top of all of this, police also have a crisis response team made up of professionals from Lutheran Family Services.

That is not going away.

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