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Cleveland hires strategist to coordinate city's emergency crisis care response

Police Mental Health.jpg
Co-response teams include police officers trained in crisis intervention and mental health case workers. Non-police care response teams are made up of only those who specialize in mental health care.

The City of Cleveland has named a former social worker who has responded to emergency calls with police to head its crisis intervention efforts, which help officials respond when encountering people living with mental illness or addiction.

Angela Cecys will spearhead efforts to integrate the city’s public health and public safety crisis intervention responses, including the coordination of emergency co-response and development of non-police care response teams, said Dr. David Margolius, the city's director of public health.

Angela Cecys, Cleveland's new Strategist for Public Safety and Health
Angela Cecys
Angela Cecys is Cleveland's new strategist for public safety and health

Co-response teams include police officers trained in crisis intervention and mental health case workers. Non-police care response teams are made up of licensed social workers and counselors.

"The design of the position is to stitch together public safety and public health and the position will help to think about how to solidify our core response teams and expand them so that they're part of just the way we do things," he said.

The position was proposed by Mayor Justin Bibb and approved last fall by Cleveland City Council through an ordinance that directs over $5 million in American Rescue Plan funds to expand the city’s co-responder teams and create a new non-police care response model.

The position’s mandate will allow the city to work with service providers, advocates and public and private stakeholders who seek to transform emergency response for people experiencing mental or behavioral health crises, housing instability or substance use disorders.

Cecys will also work to identify U.S. Department of Justice grants and other funding for crisis response and will be tasked with the development of another team to provide non-emergency mental health responses, Margolius said.

Cecys previously worked with FrontLine Service, a Cleveland nonprofit focused on ending homelessness and serving people experiencing mental and behavioral health crises.

An important part of crisis response involves providing the individual with a sense of safety and control in the heat of the moment, Cecys said.

Clients have a right to self-determination," she said. "We have the opportunity to change how we respond to crises and how police respond to crises ... they’re getting the right outcome to meet their needs”

This includes giving individuals a choice of where they will go for treatment, which has not always been the case, Cecys said.

Previously, police and paramedics have automatically taken patients to the hospital, whether they wanted to go there or not, she said. In the future, individuals will be given a say as to whether they go to the hospital, urgent care or a nonprofit treatment facility.

Providing an individual with some sense of control is essential in any crisis response, said Lori D'Angelo, executive director of Magnolia Clubhouse, a nonprofit treatment facility in Cleveland that provides a sense of community, support and job training for those with mental illness.

"It's important ... when a person is in crisis to know that they can be helped and that the focus is on their experience and helping them feel safer, number one," she said.

This sense of control and safety helps de-escalate potential conflicts, D'Angelo added.

"It helps the person calm down If they know that the environment, the people next to them in this moment are OK and can help them be okay," she said. "It's a very important part of ... de-escalating the situation and the emotions of the person."

Cecys will start June 12 and will focus on building relationships and partnerships throughout the city during her first three months, she said.

While the city is now planning an interagency, interdisciplinary response, crisis intervention teams that pair the police and mental health caseworkers have been something Cleveland has used for the past several years.

In 2017, the department adopted crisis intervention policies for encounters with mentally ill people.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.