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A program in which Lincoln police refer people with mental illness for voluntary help has reduced the chance officers will need to take the same people into emergency protective custody, a department study has found.

The study examined the department's collaboration with the Mental Health Association of Nebraska's REAL program. REAL is an acronym for respond, empower, advocate and listen, which launched in 2011.

The partnership formed following years of increasing mental health investigations by Lincoln police and limited bed space at the Crisis Center and other facilities where police take people who are in emergency protective custody, Officer Luke Bonkiewicz said.

More than 1,900 people had been referred to the program as of last September, and 85 percent accepted services, according to the review last August.

The program works like this: A police officer who meets someone with an identified or suspected mental health issue on a call writes a referral for the association, Bonkiewicz said. Then peer specialists working for the association offer the person free, voluntary and non-clinical support.

The peer specialists are trained staffers who themselves have lived with a mental illness, Bonkiewicz said.

If the help is accepted, the specialist listens as the person identifies the issues they're having and helps them develop a plan.

Sometimes this means helping someone navigate the legal process if they're having troubles with a landlord, getting them into grief counseling to process a loved one's death, or finding funds to help pay a utility bill, Bonkiewicz said.

It's not always pushing medication if the person has stopped taking their meds, he said.

The goal is to intervene with someone struggling with mental illness long before the person would need to be placed in involuntary treatment.

Analyzing data from mental health calls between 2008 and 2013, the researchers found these plans helped those who were referred to the program.

People who were referred were 33 percent less likely to be taken into emergency protective custody two years from the initial contact compared with cases where no referral was made, the study found.

At the three-year mark, individuals were 44 percent less likely to be taken into emergency protective custody.

Bonkiewicz said he believes that's because, like treatment for a serious physical ailment such as cancer, successfully treating mental illness takes time.

The referral program had no effect on the arrest rate, the study found.

Bonkiewicz believes that's because police use their arrest powers judiciously on these calls, and people with mental illness commit crimes at the same rate as people who don't have mental illness.

However, he said, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crimes.

This study follows a six-month pilot study that Bonkiewicz believes did not have enough data to examine the true effects of the program.

Other large law enforcement agencies have partnerships with on-call psychiatrists who can come out to assess someone in crisis, he said.

But the REAL Program is a unique, long-term partnership between police and mental health advocates, he said.

"I don't know of another agency that works as closely as we do with our mental health association in really providing a community-based, collaborative response," Bonkiewicz said.

The study is up for publication in Police Quarterly, a peer-reviewed academic journal on policing.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.


Riley Johnson reports on breaking news and public safety issues in Lincoln and southeast Nebraska.

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