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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
After returning home from serving our country, many of our nation’s 16.5 million veterans have experienced disabling mental health problems resulting from traumatic brain injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other effects of living in a combat zone. Though not visible, these unseen injuries can have a huge impact on their lives, leading to substance abuse, suicide, homelessness, interpersonal violence—and frequent run-ins with law enforcement.
Understanding what a veteran in crisis is going through is critical to the safety of the responding officer and the individual involved. It is also a special concern of many law enforcement professionals who feel a bond with these men and women who, like themselves, have put their lives on the line for others. These concerns have led some law enforcement agencies to establish Veteran Response Teams (VRT).
Among them is the New Castle County (Delaware) Police Department (NCCPD), which participates in a statewide collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Wilmington VA Medical Center (WVAMC) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Delaware (NAMI-DE).
Like similar programs in other parts of the country, the NCCPD’s VRT is composed of staff members who have served in the military and completed Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). They must also complete the state’s 16-hour VRT training, which includes role-playing scenarios as well as instruction in topics such as PTSD, military sexual trauma, homelessness, survivors’ guilt, and substance abuse. This training also equips them with information about the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Veterans Justice Outreach Program, Veterans Treatment Courts, and local health, housing, and other resources, as well as contacts they can reach out to for help when on the job.
In addition to responding to all calls which are believed to involve veterans, NCCPD VRT officers help vets in need connect with VA services and community support resources. And in the case of an arrest, they help them access Delaware’s, Veterans Treatment Court, a statewide program developed to divert veterans from the traditional criminal justice system and provide them with the tools they need to lead productive lives.
Asked what inspired NCCPD to develop their program, NCCPD VRT Team Leader Michelle Burrus said, “In 2017, one of our officers, a marine vet who had served in combat, saw a critical need for us to understand veterans’ issues. He told NCCPD Major John Treadwell about a Veterans Response Team training he’d heard about in Apex, North Carolina.”
Added Treadwell, “We saw vets come back damaged, and some had confrontations with law enforcement which were dangerous to both parties. So we wanted to learn the best ways to defuse situations with them, to save lives on both sides, and also help these individuals who deserve our support and respect.
“To accomplish this, some officers went to the Apex Police Department to take their VRT Train-the-Trainer program; then we partnered with NAMI for training and worked with Paul Woodland, Chief of the VA Police Service in Elsmere, Delaware, to implement the program here. We trained 14 officers from NCCPD and four other law enforcement agencies, working together to tailor the Apex program to the needs of our state and each of the participating agencies. It had to be statewide because vets move to other jurisdictions.”
Since then, NCCPD dispatchers, who are trained to identify situations involving veterans, have been putting calls out for VRT officers about four or five times a week. Because of their own military backgrounds, these officers can often develop a rapport with veterans, and with their training, successfully de-escalate a dangerous situation.
Said Burrus, “On the road, officers can usually identify former military by emblems on their clothing or license plates, tattoos, or even the verbiage they use. Then they ask questions about where the individual served, their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), and engage in conversation. Even if it’s a casual interaction, like stopping to help somebody change a tire, if the person is a veteran, the officer will go into our VRT spiel, asking if they are connected to the VA. If this person has had problems getting help, we can help them because we are connected.”
“It started out as crisis intervention program, but over time, has morphed into something much bigger,” said Treadwell. “We now also help homeless veterans find shelter, give out groceries, and more. And participation has spread among our employees, so that non–VRT officers are also helping and taking vets to the VA.”
Added Burrus, “When our officers respond to home calls and notice that the occupants don’t have food, for instance, they contact our department’s food pantry, and if they notice that the house or yard is in disarray, the response team jumps on it and finds a way to clean it up.”
Moreover, it’s a program that gives those who participate great satisfaction. Burrus tells stories of vets in crisis whom she and other team members have connected with VA services calling the department to express gratitude.
An event that was especially moving to many in the department was the VRT’s intervention on behalf of a local Korean war vet who was very sick and had no family or close friends nearby. The VRT team not only helped him get into the VA hospital but visited him there. After he died, they reached out to the WVAMC and Delaware's branch of the American Legion to arrange a military funeral with full honors at Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Word got out on social media, and hundreds of people, including many military veterans, turned out to honor him.
According to Burrus and Treadwell, the VRT program is popular with all members of the NCCPD. To date, 107 officers from 25 agencies in Delaware and seven in the bordering states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been trained. And the training has proven successful in many situations, including numerous incidents of diverting intoxicated veterans with homicidal or suicidal ideations into treatment at the VA or Veterans Court and helping transient and homeless veterans find housing. Similar programs such as the Cincinnati (Ohio) Police Department Military Liaison Group have been equally successful.
Asked how he would advise states or individual law enforcement agencies to implement something similar, Treadwell said, “Contact us, we’d be glad to help. You can learn from our partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Wilmington VA Medical Center, and NAMI.”
Though NCCPD’s VRT partnership is with the Federal VA healthcare system, there are other VA services available in each state, which may be able to provide support in setting up a similar program. The VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) program, which facilitates access to VA services for justice-involved veterans and alternatives to incarceration and is available nationwide, also provides law enforcement with training and education related to other veterans’ issues. It could be a good resource and champion for those interested in starting a VRT in their area.
NAMI is a nationwide, grassroots mental health organization, which can also help by providing training. But it is equally important that agencies connect with community-based treatment agencies and entities that provide mental health and other support services. As the Homeless and Justice Programs Supervisor at Wilmington VA Medical Center, Cecilia Gonzalez, said, “It takes a village.”
Everybody involved with the Delaware VRT program, including veterans who have been personally helped, has praised it and credited it with turning lives around. As further testament to its success, the Wilmington VA Medical Center collaborated with the VA Homeless Programs Office to launch a research project which indicated that vets who interacted with VRT officers had increased engagement and treatment for health care, including mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Said Treadwell, “Participating in this program gives me a lot of satisfaction because it allows us to better serve and protect those who have served our country and sacrificed for us. We need to do better by our vets.”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
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