YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — City police are about to debut two new mental health initiatives.

Officers will have access to on-call grief counselors for some scenes where victims need immediate help, and soon officers will also be pairing with counselors on some calls where someone may be experiencing a mental health problem.

Counselors will be supplied to the department through Compass Family And Community Services.

City Community Initiative To Reduce Violence Executive Director Guy Burney is also one of the driving forces behind both projects. Burney said he thinks the project is so important that he used funds from the CIRV to help cover the cost of the initial program.

Chief Carl Davis said the idea for having a counselor ride with an officer came after when he and Mayor Jamael Tito Brown traveled earlier this year to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where they learned about similar programs in Denver, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The genesis for the grief counselors program was a homicide more than two years ago–the July 18, 2020, shooting death of Brandon Wesley, 19, who was shot and killed while walking home after playing basketball at Homestead Park.

Burney said he spoke to Wesley’s mother the next day and set her up with help to deal with her grief. But he said he was also concerned for her and others who are going through the immediate jolt of losing a loved one and how that can affect them when they have to deal with police, coroner investigators, hospital personnel and others, so he thought someone who can assist them in the moment would be a big help.

“There’s so much trauma you’re going through you’re not able to think in the moment,” Burney said.

Jennifer Gray, who works for Compass and was helping train officers on the process for calling out a grief counselor if they need one, said complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic put that program out of reach until now.

Gray’s counselors will help people cope with the shock and grief of immediate loss that often accompanies trauma, such as an accident, suicide, or homicide.

At such a scene, a supervisor will decide if victims need some sort of help to get through the immediate stages of their grief and will make the decision to place a call to have a counselor come to the scene. On some occasions, that counselor may be called that night but not visit the victims until the next day.

Besides helping victims with the immediate aftermath of their loss, counselors can also help in the days and weeks to come, to provide help with other counseling or social services, Gray said. She said the counselor called out to the scene will follow that family or people there as long as possible to make sure they get the care they need to move on.

Gray, who also worked for Boardman police for 13 years in a civilian role as well as the state Attorney General’s office, said the counselors are there to support police and will only be acting at their discretion.

On-call grief counselors have helped in a variety of situations, including the Chardon school shooting in 2012 and the kidnapping of three women in Cleveland between 2002 and 2004 who were ultimately freed in 2013, Gray said.

“We know it’s meaningful and effective when paired with law enforcement,” Gray said.

Gray said a by-product of offering immediate counseling is that victims who are also witnesses to an incident may be calmed down enough to give statements to police. She said the services will probably be used for incidents she described as “extraordinary.”

Chief of Detectives Capt. Jason Simon said he thinks the counselors will probably be used any time the death of a child takes place.

“Whenever kids are involved, that will be a big activator of this,” Simon said.

Simon said all of the department’s patrol supervisors are well experienced, and he thinks they will know on their own when someone should be called out to assist a family.

Gray said counseling in such situations tends to be more “in the moment,” so sometimes the counselor will be following the lead of the person or persons they are called to help. Some may be angry, for example, so they will help them deal with their anger. Others may just want to sit for a while, so the counselor will sit with them in case they want to open up with someone.

The department does have a robust chaplain program, but often chaplains are used for notification purposes or to visit victims and their families at the hospital in the aftermath of a major crime, Davis said. He also said that state law requires a victim advocate at the common pleas court level who assists victims of crime when cases make their way through the legal system, but he thinks there should be more.

“We need something for the in-between,” Davis said.

The grief counselors should be available to officers sometime before the end of this month, said Staff Inspector Lt. Brian Butler.

As for the counselors who ride with officers, Davis said those talks are still ongoing but he expects that program to begin shortly as well.

The programs in Albuquerque and Denver are a little different than what Davis has in mind because the counselors are on their own and not partnered with police, but the goal is the same; to help people who may be having a mental health issue without throwing them in jail.

“Not everyone needs to go to jail,” Davis said.

Denver, with a population of over 715,000, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, started their program in June of 2020, where an ambulance with a paramedic and counselor patrols and takes calls for people who are having some type of issue that may not require law enforcement.

In Denver, according to a study of the program by Stanford University released in June, the members of the program, which is called Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, respond to non-violent calls. STAR also deals with homelessness and substance abuse issues and in some instances, patrol officers either called them directly or requested them.

The study found that STAR members handled 750 calls from June to December 2020 in eight different precincts where call levels were expected to be high. According to the study, crime in those neighborhoods was 34 percent less than in neighborhoods that did not have access to STAR.

Albuquerque, which has a population of over 564,000, launched their Albuquerque Community Safety Department last August. That department focuses on issues like homelessness, mental health and addiction and answers calls that may not require a police officer. Members are unarmed.

The CSD began patrols last September, with three, three-person teams hitting the road. According to KRQE, Albuquerque’s mayor is seeking $8.1 million for the department in the city’s next budget, which would double their current funding.

Burney and Davis both said they are still working on the logistics of having a counselor ride with an officer to help answer some of the mental health or non-violent, law enforcement calls that police have to answer. Burney said that is just a logical next step after having counselors on call to help survivors deal with grief.

Davis said having such services is a good example of how policing has changed over the 30 years since he became a cop in Youngstown. At one time, people who needed help with mental illness could be taken to Woodside Receiving Hospital, but the hospital has been gone for years, and that hamstrung police in such situations for a while.

Davis also pointed out that a large number of his officers have undergone Crisis Intervention Training on how to deal with people who are undergoing a mental health crisis.