When Hannah Anderson goes to an incident that requires law enforcement response, it is readily apparent that she is not a police officer.
“She does not wear anything with our badge. She wears the town seal. Her tan vest doesn’t look like ours. She’s a neutral party there trying to help,” said Lt. Christian Gonzales, the department’s public information officer.
As the Bluffton Police Department’s community mental health advocate, Anderson’s job is to help those involved find the resources that will resolve whatever issues may have caused the crisis. The new position was created because of events that have happened nationwide.
“We saw the need, and our council, chief, and mayor saw the need. They really wanted this position to exist,” he said.
Anderson has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Creighton University, and a master’s degree in clinical psychology earned through Capella University while living in Japan. Her work experience includes volunteering at the Douglas County Corrections and Project Homeless Connect in Omaha; undergraduate internship with the Fourth Judicial District Court in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and working as a mental health technician at the Newport News Behavioral Health Center for adolescents in Virginia.
“It was personal experience with family and friends that initially piqued my interest in psychology. My grandfather was also a corrections officer for the Omaha Corrections Center in Omaha for 25 years,” said Anderson. “Once I began volunteering and working in the field, I realized I had found my passion in assisting those who are struggling with mental illness, specifically those who have come into contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”
Gonzales said when the decision was made to create the position, he researched the requirements by speaking with members of the community, the department’s mental health specialists, people who work in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and other mental health resources before writing the job description.
“We advertised for it and then interviewed a lot of people. It’s easy to write something and then see what is going to work. We’re constantly refining the job,” said Gonzales. “We picked Hannah. Personality has a lot to do with it. Hannah is very good with people. She can talk with them.”
Anderson spends two days a week riding along with officers, and responds to mental health-related calls in tandem with the department.
“We recently had an incident where a person with mental illness was involved in a major incident and was subsequently arrested for their involvement. While they were incarcerated, I was able to speak with them and discuss a plan of action moving forward,” Anderson said. “I was also able to contact their existing mental health care provider and bring them up to date with our department’s interactions with their patient.”
Anderson has been with the department six months, and in the first couple of months she was mostly involved in training.
“She’s responded to several calls. We’ve done training with her for protection, so she knows what she needs to do if something goes bad,” said Gonzales. “We sent her to Georgia to ride with another mental health professional, and then up to Columbia to get an idea of what this is really about. We’ve also sent her to crisis intervention team (CIT) instructor training. The chief’s mission is to have our entire police department CIT trained.”
According to NAMI’s website, “CIT programs create connections between law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency services and individuals with mental illness and their families.”
It also notes examples of how a CIT has reduced serious injuries and deaths during interactions between police and those with mental illness, reducing the time officers spend responding to a mental health call, and cost savings through applying community-based mental health treatment instead of incarceration.
“Hannah’s going to certify people when she gets done with all of her training,” Gonzales said. “You see what goes on in the country, and if we have a problem with a mental health issue, she can de-escalate it. She may resolve it instead of officers handling it a different way. That’s why we want to get them all trained up. And it’s going to get better. We just put in a grant for a CIT officer to work with her.”
As the community mental health advocate for the Bluffton Police Department, Anderson’s responsibilities are to the citizens of the town.
“I believe I bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community,” Anderson said. “I’m able to collaborate with families and other community partners in a way that is unique to my position.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.