RTA Transit Police Show Best Practices for Utilizing New County Diversion Center

By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s (GCRTA) Transit Police have placed a total of seven individuals in services at the new Cuyahoga County Diversion Center as of August 27, rivaling the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) for the law enforcement agency most utilizing this new program. 

The Diversion Center opened on May 3 to provide an alternative to arrest for people who commit minor offenses related to mental illness or substance abuse problems. The Center provides assessment and evaluation services, counseling, detox/withdrawal management, and help to clients needing to obtain medication. A study completed by Cuyahoga County looked at inmates booked into jail between May and November 2019. One-third of those inmates had serious mental health or substance abuse problems. The identified individuals also stayed in jail an average of 77% longer than the other inmates.

Last month Laura Hakim attended a Mental Health Response Advisory Committee (MHRAC) meeting and took notes for Cleveland Documenters. RTA’s frequent use of the Diversion Center was highlighted. In her follow-up observations, Hakim asked What kind of training or support have RTA officers received that empowers them to make diversion work?”

RTA Transit Police Chief Deirdre Jones said,Transit Police receive yearly Crisis Intervention Training [CIT] to interact with the mentally ill. The officers function as first responders to emergency dispatch calls in the community and coordinate with local community mental health resources.”

She says use of FrontLine Service and the Diversion Center “is protocol” for RTA Transit Police and adds, “We believe so strongly in the resources that the Center offers, we donated our time and personnel to complete an outdoor beautification project at the Center. We will continue to work with the Center to offer any assistance that we can provide.”

According to Linda Weyandt of Oriana House, the Diversion Center staff has had “no problems at all” in the collaboration with RTA: “[They] have been great to work with and we appreciate all that they are doing.” 

The Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board (ADAMHS) of Cuyahoga County, who provides oversight to the Diversion Center, shows how the process of a police referral works on this flow chart. “When a Transit Police officer encounters an individual involved in a low-level offense who is also having a mental health or substance abuse issue, the officer calls a designated 24-hour hotline operated by FrontLine Service to get a screening for the individual, said Jones.” RTA officers have so far made a total of 13 calls, equal to that of all of CDP. 

“If the individual meets the criteria based on screening,” Jones added, “he or she can be transported to the Diversion Center in lieu of arrest, or transported to a hospital for psychological evaluation. FrontLine Service will be able to provide other options and services for referrals who do not meet the criteria.”

Officers are to take agreeable individuals to the Diversion Center, sign them in, and are free to leave. Data provided by the ADAMHS Board states the average time spent for a referring agent to complete the drop-off process of a client to the Diversion Center is 7.32 minutes. Law enforcement only returns to the equation if the client ends their participation in the program on their own, prior to receiving services.

Several personal stories show the collaboration between RTA and the Diversion Center is already making an impact. A man brought to the Center by RTA Police wrote a letter to Diversion Center staff to express his gratitude. “I came in a broken man. Today I leave with a new sense of hope and a positive attitude toward my life,” said the man.

Jones described an incident at the Southgate Station in Maple Heights where Transit Police were called to assist emergency medical services with a woman who had questionably been assaulted. The responding sergeant was able to identify later on video surveillance that an assault had actually occurred and returned to Southgate with another officer the next day to find the woman. They located her there, and seeing her wounds were becoming worse, encouraged her to get medical treatment. The officers followed her through treatment for her injuries and convinced her to voluntarily go to the Diversion Center.  

Other area law enforcement agencies have reportedly been slow to utilize the Diversion Center, prompting MHRAC to draft a formal letter to the Cleveland Division of Police with recommendations to implement protocols to allow officers to use the Center more frequently. To date CDP has made nine referrals. The main recommendations expected to be made by MHRAC to CDP are already in place within RTA’s policies. 

The goal of Transit Police is to provide a system of services that is friendly to individuals with mental illness, their family members, and the police officers,” Jones added. “Our partnership with social service agencies has resulted in numerous people receiving the care they needed. Our officers serve the community with passion and respect and understand the importance of treating those who are homeless or in crisis with dignity. Doing so cultivates and strengthens relationships with those who have residence and mental health challenges.” 

This article was written with information obtained from Documenters.org, a news service providing coverage of local government meetings, currently operating in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. For more information, visit the City Bureau website.