The MSU Police Department is working to integrate a holistic, mental health approach into every aspect of their interactions with the public.

MSU’s campus presents a wide variety of challenges for the MSU Police Department: high-security sites like water and power plants; thousands of young people living together; a network of some 25,000 security alarm points. And this vast campus is only part of their jurisdiction.

The university’s campus borders two cities and four townships, in which MSU Police are also deputized, meaning they could be called for support across an infinite range of off-campus concerns, as well. 

Across this varied landscape, the Department began noticing a uniting factor—and tracking it—in many incidents requiring their response: what could broadly be called a “mental health component.” 

In a cultural moment when the role of the police and police accountability are at the center of the conversation, the MSU Police Department is working to integrate a holistic, mental health approach into every aspect of their interactions with the public. 

This directive has driven the Department to sign on to the One Mind Campaign: an initiative from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), a professional association for law enforcement that provides training, technical assistance, and more to members. Joining the One Mind Campaign requires serious work: MSU Police must train 100% of their officers in Mental Health First Aid, and at least 30% must complete a more intensive Crisis Intervention Training. This training begins to make sense when one takes stock of what MSU Police do on a daily basis.

What does the MSU Police Department do? 

While many think of the primary role of the police as responding to violence or crime-in-progress, this is only a small portion of their daily existence. Much more often, they are called to help sort out a difficult interpersonal situation, de-escalate a conflict, render motor vehicle assistance, respond to medical emergencies, or triage an emergent hazard. 

One of the duties officers most often perform, though it remains almost invisible to the public, is responding to students in the grip of a mental health crisis. 

“The MSU Police Department has been tracking the incidents we respond to that involve some sort of mental health component, in a detailed way, since about 2016,” says Captain Chris Rozman, the Department’s Public Information Officer. “What we’ve seen is an exponential increase in the number of calls for service, the number of welfare checks, and incidents involving students with suicidal ideation. We recognized quickly, several years ago, that this was emerging as something we needed to really focus on and adapt to.”

This analysis resulted in MSU Police creating the Behavioral Threat Assessment Unit, or BTAU. The unit currently has three full-time detectives who are certified in threat assessment. “They analyze and deconflict a lot of these cases to see if there’s a threat component” says Rozman. “A person who is having a mental health crisis may have some escalating behaviors.”

But the goal, regardless, is make contact with the person experiencing the crisis and connect them with proper university or community resources. This is a paradigm shift from a more simplistic notion of policing—officers are not “crime neutralizers” so much as a referral agency entrusted with keeping individuals safe.  

 “As the police department, we act as a referral agency, and we'll reach out to the student we’ve had contact with and provide them with resources,” says Rozman. “We’ll refer them to Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) and some of our other community partners. We try to really make a connection and refer them to the right social service agency or MSU partner.”

More than good public relations

“We’ve been doing this for years, but we started looking at how we could take this model to the next level. We’re dealing with a lot of people in crisis,” says Rozman. “We train some people in-house. We have an instructor that is an internationally certified crisis intervention trainer, and then some other officers that are specialized in non-escalation and de-escalation training .”

When police leadership saw the One Mind Campaign, it dovetailed with the direction the Department was already heading. “It fits our values; we really want to focus on the quality of care and the quality of interaction we have when we deal with people in crisis. That could be somebody suffering a mental health crisis, a behavioral issue, or someone with communicative challenges like autism,” says Rozman.

Partnership with Counseling and Psychiatric Services

“When we talk about community safety, a lot of times, that’s a concerted effort that involves all stakeholders. We’re just one,” says Rozman. This holistic model of public safety is the reason the MSU Police Department works closely with another crucial MSU unit: Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS). Captain Rozman even sits on some hiring committees for CAPS; the two units regularly train and collaborate.

“I think we’re a bit ahead of the curve in terms of this integrated, compassionate policing  model,” says Rozman. “And making the pledge to be part of the One Mind Campaign formalizes that and helps our officers become better public servants.”

MSU Police recently completed the One Mind Campaign Pledge requirements. The Department is one of five Michigan police agencies to have completed the One Mind Campaign Pledge.

Learn more about the One Mind Campaign here.