Boise police look to help those dealing with mental health issues

During his 22 years as a police officer, Chief Bill Bones of the Boise Police Department said, he has responded to at least 100 calls where someone needed help for mental health problems and Bones did not think he had the ability to get it.

“As an officer — and I know that has continued until today — you hate to walk away without that,” Bones said.

On Wednesday, Bones introduced Penelope Hansen, who was hired as the department’s first-ever mental health coordinator. A civilian employee, Hansen will analyze the department’s strategies for handling mental health issues, assess training needs and reach out to advocacy groups, mental health providers, the Ada County Jail and other groups to provide a liaison between them and officers.

“When our officers go out and respond to a call and they have someone and they know that person needs a service, they resolve what they can resolve in an emergency service and then they hand that off to me,” Hansen said. “And then I figure out what community partners we need to reach to link that person with a service.”

Idaho’s fragmented mental health system was the subject of “In Crisis,” a special series last October by the Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio. The system leaves many mentally ill people behind, with police and mobile crisis units responding regularly to mental health emergencies and untreated people ending up in hospitals. Courts and jails are among Idaho’s biggest mental health providers, the series reported.

Former Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson, who retired this year, spent three years trying to hire a person to form a bridge between the department and community service providers to get help for people in crisis. But there was never enough money to hire an extra person without eliminating a sworn officer.

Masterson was troubled by a 2009 incident in which Boise resident George G. Nickel Jr., 38, fired an AR-15 rifle to shoot the locks off two apartments in his complex in the Vista neighborhood. He was looking for his dog and thought the pet was in the apartments. Officers later confronted him in a stairway and fired a dozen rounds at him. No one was injured.

Nickel spent a year in Iraq in 2007 with the 321st Engineer Battalion of the Idaho Army Reserve. He suffered a broken leg and took shrapnel to his face in a February 2007 attack that killed three Idaho soldiers. He spent four months recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before returning home to Boise.

After the apartments incident, a judge sentenced Nickel to therapy instead of jail. Nickel enrolled in a social work program at Boise State University, counseled other veterans and worked with police to develop protocols for crisis encounters with veterans. He was later hired as director of student and veteran affairs for the Wyakin Warriors, a Boise-based program that helps returning veterans.

Bones hired Hansen by using savings from shifting to an electronic records system and combining bookkeeping functions with the Boise Fire Department.

Hansen, 37, grew up in Salmon. A licensed clinical counselor, she earned a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Eastern Washington University. Earlier, she attended the College of Idaho and the University of Montana.

She previously served as the director of psychological health for the Idaho Army National Guard and was an examiner on the crisis response team for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in Canyon County. In the latter role, she worked with people at risk of harming themselves or others.

She began her career working with adolescents in residential treatment and later worked as a therapist primarily counseling children and families.

“Officers are consistently running into people who suffer from mental illness,” Bones said. “Most of the time, we run into them before they’re at that crisis moment, so we have that opportunity to interact, and if we can get people services and help, we can prevent a crisis moment from ever occurring. That’s better for the police department and better for the person.”

Twenty percent of the people in Idaho jails and prisons suffer from mental illness, Bones said. Idaho has the third-lowest rate among the 50 states of per capita spending on mental health services.

“So getting people in touch with those community services that exist is key, and we believe Penelope has those skills,” Bones said.

Police officers, local hospitals, the Department of Health and Welfare and other mental health service agencies and paramedics have told Hansen they’re glad the department added her position. “It’s been really good,” she said.