Milton police mental health expert a critical member of force

Apr. 2—MILTON — Jerry Bastian has a background in federal law enforcement, but that's not the only reason he has worked with the Milton Police Department for the past nine months.

Bastian, who worked for the maximum security prison in Allenwood for 25 years, the last 13 as a counselor, was hired as a mental health expert.

"Through the years and being a counselor in a pretty tough place, I've learned how to effectively communicate with people and feel I have a knack for connecting with them through coaching and counseling," Bastian said. "Given the volume of people I've been involved with, I developed some pretty decent communication skills."

An estimated 7 to 10 percent of all police encounters involve a person suffering from mental illness, according to a "Redesigning Public Safety: Mental Health Emergency Response," a report released last year by the Center for Policing Equity. Most of the encounters do not involve violence and some don't involve a crime, according to the report.

Milton Police Chief Curt Zettlemoyer said the volume of calls still force officers to become de facto counselors, which prompted him to adopt a crisis intervention team approach. The approach matches responding officers with Bastian, who can be called in to assist during applicable incidents.

Mental health training is also standard for police departments, he said.

"After COVID, and even during COVID, we saw an uptick in mental health crises," Zettlemoyer said. "But there was also a lot of turnover in services available to individuals. Even now, we see a lack of facilities that are able to provide longer-term mental health help. We would see people with mental health issues that go to the emergency room and be there for days before they get help."

Zettlmoyer noticed people going for help, getting released immediately and officers were back nonstop to the place to deal with the same issues.

"We wanted to see what we could do at the community level to try and help Milton Borough residents," he said

Bastian found out there would be an opening in the Milton Police Department just after his retirement from the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"I reached out to the chief. We talked. Ironically, 22 hours after I retired from the Bureau of Prisons I was hired," he said. "My retirement lasted not quite a day."

Bastian always accompanies an officer during incidents involving mental health situations.

"There are times when we back off and let him take the lead," Zettlemoyer said. "It is about the person in crisis."

During a recent traffic stop, a person was having a crisis that an officer determined involved a mental health issue. Bastian was called in within minutes and was able to help de-escalate the situation.

"A couple of months back there was a situation where there was a guy with a domestic dispute here in the borough," Bastian said. "He was holding himself hostage in his house, and threatened to commit suicide. He refused to come out of the house. There was a large police presence at the house. At some point, they made contact with him on the phone. Passed it over to me.

"I was able to talk to him and de-escalate the situation and get him to understand that at that point there really wasn't a criminal charge. He hadn't hurt anyone and there was no physical abuse altercation. I just got him to calm down, come out of the house where we could get him the help and services that he needed."

Bastian was able to convince him to come out of the house.

"I walked up with an officer towards the house," Bastian said. "The officer immediately patted him down, we were able to take him to the side and discuss what was going on with him and get him de-escalated."

Bastian works part-time, between 22 and 30 hours a week.

"For us now we have a person who has the experience with mental health issues, and has been dealing with this for nine months," Zettlemoyer said. "He has developed contacts with all the help agencies in the area and can say, 'OK, this is a situation that falls into this category' — for example the county's drug and alcohol program or programs for individuals where our county cooperates with the attorney general's office. Maybe spaces are reserved for rehab.

"We have that warm handoff now, whereas we never had that in the past."

Zettlemoyer said there are times when Geisinger employees will call about when someone who had been hospitalized was being released and Bastian can work with the individual's counselors to provide resources and improve their chances of success.

"I love the community model because many people in these situations don't have the closest network of support," Zettlemoyer said. "Here they can take ownership and support from Jerry.

"There are times when people have come in and want to talk to Jerry. That is a sign that things are working — when someone in trouble actively seeks out assistance prior to a situation escalating and police are called in via a 911 call."

Zettlemoyer and Bastian both said the program is not meant to replace health treatment or counseling.

"That is not the case at all," Bastian said. "I'm almost like a social worker in the police department. I deal with aging, children in drug and alcohol-related situations. If I am here I will go on a call with guys.

"If I am not here there will be referrals. I have a phone I keep with me 24/7. I'm called on weekends. At night. I don't care about that. I just enjoy trying to help people."

Bastian has had more than 300 encounters in the 9 months he's been on the force. Some were follow-ups.

"I've been involved with up to 100 different individuals in the borough in nine months, he said. "It is rewarding when I can help someone."

Zettlemoyer said he believes the crisis intervention team model is trending and effective.

"We are the only one in this area right now," he said. "It comes down to finding the right person, the right department, and the right relationships where people are willing to be all in on the program."