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How Technology Can Help Mental Health Intervention

Equipping officers with the support they need to effectively navigate mental health crisis intervention in the field can be a challenge. Here’s how Axon can help.


Calls for service that involve a mental health crisis, in which a person’s thoughts or behavior put them at risk of hurting themselves or others, are some of the most deadly. They also tend to be the most scrutinized when it comes to use of force.


Recent calls to defund the police have suggested that police and mental health calls don’t mix and that, instead, we should send social workers or mobile crisis units. Unfortunately, most jurisdictions aren’t equipped to make that happen with any expediency.


Police are being told we’re not the right people to handle these mental health calls, and I’m not disagreeing,” says Deputy Chief Martin Gaudet, of Fredericton Police Force in New Brunswick, Canada. “When I was a new, 23-year-old cop, I had limited crisis intervention training and even less life experience on the topic of mental health. But our mobile crisis units are only on from noon to 2200, so who’s going to go at 3 o’clock in the morning? And even during the day, the mobile crisis units can only cover so much ground. If they’re not available, then what? We can’t afford to have a psychologist at our command post 24 hours a day.”


Even if that were possible financially, there are safety concerns about sending mental health professionals on calls with potentially violent subjects. Embedding them with officers isn’t a risk many chiefs are willing to take.


“As an officer going into an already unpredictable and possibly unsafe situation, now my attention is divided and I’m responsible for someone else’s safety,” Gaudet says. “I just can’t see exposing my officers to that added pressure and liability.”


So what are agencies to do? How can they provide evidence-based crisis intervention with limited resources?


Those were the questions Gaudet discussed with his partners at Axon in a voice-of-customer brainstorming session, which Axon holds regularly with customers to uncover needs and challenges. 


“What we came up with was, ‘What if we could live stream the actual event as it’s unfolding to a clinician or subject matter expert who could then advise the officer on scene what to say or how to handle the situation?’” Gaudet says. “The clinician would have access to the subject’s medical records so they could help negotiate the situation.”


Gaudet realized using officers' body-worn cameras would allow the department to provide remote support. Body-worn cameras with live streaming capabilities through Axon Respond for Devices enable anyone with appropriate permissions to view, in real time, the mental health crisis situation to which an officer is responding. That includes clinicians and trained negotiators, who can then provide support to officers as a scene unfolds.


With this solution, clinicians stay out of potentially dangerous situations, officers aren’t burdened with extra equipment, and agencies save resources by not transporting clinicians from scene to scene.

“Live streaming through the body cams just makes sense,” Gaudet says. See how Fredericton uses Axon Body 3 cameras and Axon Respond for Devices for the purpose of de-escalating mental health crises in this video


Plus, Gaudet discovered live streaming a subject’s behavior to a medical expert has evidentiary value, too.


“Let’s say we arrest the subject and bring him to the hospital,” he says. “When he’s evaluated three or more hours later, he’s not acting or sounding the way he did when we arrested him. So now he gets released, goes home and kills himself or hurts someone. Having the video of the event — having a clinician see the subject’s behavior — means he might get the help he needs.”

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