Powered by a $1.2 million grant, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office has taken its first steps in a new mental health initiative program by hiring a behavioral health specialist who has already hit the streets and helped intervene in a handful of situations.
Just call Dr. Alana Brunacini, the “de-escalator.”
The Phoenix native’s role so far since she was hired on Nov. 14 has included going on 911 calls with deputies where there was a possible mental health component at play, but where the situation could have quickly turned awry if Brunacini had not been there to help calm the waters.
“We have our crimes, fires and life threatening emergencies. The community uses 911 for more than that,” Brunacini said. “We want to make sure we are meeting the community’s needs with the right service and the right staff.
“A law enforcement officer is not always the right staff for what the community is calling about.”
The money given to the Sheriff’s Office by the Legacy Foundation in May is helping make Brunacini’s role possible, said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Robert Watkins, who was instrumental in launching the mental health program.
The Legacy Foundation of Southeast Arizona was founded in 1963, its mission to promote health and community wellness by offering grants and educational workshops enhancing the functions of nonprofit organizations.
The grant is meant to fund a three-year initiative that will enable the Sheriff’s Office to hire three mental health experts and one plain-clothes detention officer who would be a liaison between the Cochise County Jail and mental health professionals.
The personnel the Sheriff’s Office recruits — such as Brunacini — will not be limited to working just at the jail, where a great majority of the inmates have mental health issues, but all over Cochise County, Watkins said recently.
The Sheriff’s Office was chosen as one of the top grantees after Watkins created a presentation pointing to the lack of mental health care facilities in Cochise County. Watkins’ report also underscores how law enforcement and other professionals in the area respond when there is a mental health situation in the community and how that must change.
With a doctorate’s degree in behavioral health and a licensed professional counselor in Arizona, Brunacini said many times a caller just needs someone who will listen to his or her scenario. She will be there to help de-escalate the situation by just providing some simple, common sense advice that cannot be given by deputies who are usually pressed for time trying to get to their next call, Watkins said.
And while she is certainly not there to give a diagnosis or provide therapy, Brunacini said she is able to give enough to help an individual avoid going to jail if no crime has occurred or the emergency room if there is no medical issue.
“These are not patients or people with a diagnosis,” Brunacini said. “I’m not providing therapy. We’re really trying to provide some de-escalization, some stabilizing, some rapid very specific type of street case management.
“Their (the caller’s) needs have been met and they no longer are experiencing an emergency. No one ends up in jail and no one ends up in the ER.”
Watkins provided an example that involved Brunacini recently riding with a deputy who was responding to a call on a stolen vehicle.
The call turned out to be more emotional and mental health than criminal, Watkins and Brunacini said.
“It was like a Days of Our Lives episode, with several back stories and linear dramas,” Watkins said. “She jumped out of the car and mingled in. She allowed the deputy to do his job.
“Once she ascertained that there was no crime and that these people were in distress, she stayed there and provided after care to de-escalate the person, not just a person, there were several people who were very, very upset.”
While the deputy likely felt compassion for the situation, Watkins said he had to move on to the next call.
Describing Brunacini as someone with “street swagger” Watkins said he believes his first hire for the mental health team “will do great things.”
After the Sheriff’s Office received the grant, Watkins said he put out some feelers in June and July seeking a behavioral health specialist.
Brunacini said she saw one of those posts in a Bisbee newspaper after she and her family moved to the town from Phoenix. Coming from a “fire department family” Brunacini said she has done a lot of consulting work, but wanted to “reach out” because the position involved working for a public safety agency.
She said she soon discovered that there are many individuals in Cochise County who are interested in mental health issues and getting them resolved.
“There is a huge mental health-behavioral health movement across the county,” Brunacini said.
Aside from the crucial ride-alongs with deputies on 911 calls, Brunacini said she will begin her new role by assessing past calls to the dispatch center — SouthEast Arizona Command, or SEACOM — to determine how they could have been handled differently, if necessary.
“How many calls could a mental health team have gone on instead of an officer?” Brunacini asked. “How many calls from the very beginning could have been dealt with better by dispatch?
“We want to come from the Sheriff’s Office as a mental health support team. Where we fit into the huge pie is at the 911 level.”
Brunacini also wants to develop a program, a set of rules and procedures that would dictate how the mental health team would work with other agencies. That also would include developing a “practical functional service” to best serve those in need who come in contact with the Sheriff’s Office via 911.
“We have some assumptions about the calls that will be our bread and butter,” Brunacini said. “(Those include) danger to self, suicidal calls, anything that is clearly a mental health issue, that’s where we will find ourselves.
“We’re gonna hit the road 100 percent,” she added. “I’ve been given a huge amount of respect and latitude by the Sheriff’s Office. We’re going to provide in-community services at that 911 level.”
The team SEACOM — an additional licensed behavioral health specialist is expected to come on board — will work closely with the county’s Crisis Response Team as well, Brunacini said. The program will also work with behavioral health technicians from Cochise College.
“Depending on what exists, we might relieve the sheriff and hang out with that family until the crisis response team arrives, or we may be able to handle it ourselves,” Brunacini said.
On thing Brunacini already dislikes about the program is that it’s set to end in three years.
“I will do everything in my power to continue working on funding services,” she said. “If we’re going to provide a service, I don’t want to yank it from the community.”
The bottom line of her role, Brunacini said, is “keeping people out of jail if no crime has been committed, keeping them out of the ER if there is no medical issue, and meeting their emergent need.”
Watkins hopes that once the other mental health professionals and the jail liaison are hired, the effort could be modeled after the GRACe program, Giving Recovery A Chance, intended primarily for heavy users of the criminal justice system whose mental health problems potentially affect their ability to assist in their own defense and complicate their daily lives.
The sheriff will be partnering with La Frontera, an outpatient mental health program, in its efforts, as well as with school officials and other law enforcement agencies.
Watkins thanked Chiricahua Community Health Centers, La Frontera, Jan Jones and Bethany Hill of Cochise College and of course, the Legacy Foundation, for helping get the program off the ground.
For the program to work, there must be a collaboration of several entities, Brunacini said: “There’s not just one thing, not just one solution, or one agency that’s going to have the magic wand for it (the mental health problem).”