Seattle police partner up with mental health expert

SEATTLE -- Extreme cases of mental illness are getting special attention from Seattle police.

Officers with Seattle's crisis intervention team now have their own expert to help them handle mental health calls.

Justin Dawson isn't a cop; he is a trained mental health professional. And his partnership with Officer Dan Nelson is changing street tactics when dealing with people who are paranoid, schizophrenic or bipolar.

"Not everybody is going to respond favorably to an officer," Dawson said, adding that's where he comes in. "Once the situation is deemed safe, the officer can take a step back and I can go up."

Dawson and Nelson take on the cases that can frustrate patrol officers. Sometimes a person can act in a frightening way, but officers are at a loss if the person has done nothing illegal.

The two spend much of their time making house calls. Dawson's training helps him recognize symptoms on the fly. Then he refers people to a host of available services instead of hauling them off to jail or the hospital emergency room.

"The chronically mentally-ill -- They are violating stuff like the trespass ordinance over and over again. Regular courts and regular jail isn't going to fix it," Nelson said.

It's this street outreach that gives Dawson and Nelson direct contact with the people who are in crisis, so they can get the help they need in time. The crisis intervention team includes two other officers, but Dawson is the only civilian.

A federal grant pays Dawson's salary, and will keep this pilot project funded for two years.