Police seeking social services coordinator

Police officers in a training room.
Photo: John Schisler

In 2022, Mt. Lebanon police officers responded to 139 calls related to mental health. In 2023, that number grew to 293. Based on the number of calls received in the first two and a half months of 2024—87—the department is projecting a total of 417 calls related to mental health issues this year.

The overwhelming majority of those calls did not involve weapons, drugs or alcohol. Those 519 calls went to only 374 homes. Officers were called to the same address more than twice in 62 instances, and more than five times in 12 cases.

Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Jason Haberman believes his department needs additional resources to cope with the increase in mental health calls. “We recognize that we do have a problem,” he said in a presentation to the Mt. Lebanon Commission in March. Although officers have had training in dealing with mental health issues, “What’s missing is the ability to deliver services in a way that makes sense to mental health consumers,” he said. “We have to have a way to deliver resources and services to people, and that can’t necessarily be uniformed police showing up at the door. If we’re going to the same residence five times, clearly we’re not solving the problem.”

Marion McGowan, senior vice president and chief operating officer at St. Clair Health, agrees.

“Law enforcement and hospitals really are the last-ditch resort,” she said.

Since 2019, St. Clair Health has seen a doubling in the number of patient days—the amount of time patients need to spend in the hospital to address their mental health needs.

“We are seeing a substantial increase in the complexity and acuity of the illnesses we are treating,” said McGowan. “Most of our 26 beds for psychiatric care are filled every day.”

Often, patients seeking help for mental illness come to the emergency department, “already in an extreme condition, escalated, not in control and potentially violent,” said McGowan. “Being able to treat people well before they get to that escalated point is critical.”

In 2023, the Ross Township Police Department created a position for a social services coordinator to provide comprehensive social services, including crisis support, case management, short-term counseling and community outreach. Haberman would like Mt. Lebanon to do the same.

Jordan Sager, Ross Township’s social services coordinator, spoke at the Commission discussion session.

“Having a social services coordinator that can be there for these crisis calls (means) you have a subject matter expert to respond to these behavioral health emergencies,” he said.

The increased call volume means officers are devoting more time to follow up on the calls. In 2023, 32 of the calls required more than 111 minutes of police officers’ time on scene. As of March of this year, the nine calls have required that amount of time, which could involve multiple officers trying to find mental health services, or locating a relative and bringing them to the public safety center.

Sager says the time he spends on case management alleviates that burden from the Ross officers.

“It’s not easy calling insurance companies, making sure the insurance lines up with a treatment center, and that’s something we can do following the crisis incident,” he said, “figuring out the best resource for what they’re going through.”

In addition to serving residents with mental health issues, the social services coordinator could also serve as a resource for other municipal departments, such as code enforcement officers who are faced with a hoarding situation, and could even serve as an in-house resource for police officers, firefighters and any other municipal employee who may need help coping with difficult or traumatic work situations.

Haberman sees the social services coordinator position as an innovative way to deal with a growing problem.

“(Police) should not be the answer to every problem,” he said. “We are looking to connect residents with appropriate resources in order to prevent them from going into crisis.”