SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — When law enforcement officers interact with those amid a mental health crisis, expert help can be a long way away.

In rural South Dakota, that means a sheriff's deputy might have to deal with someone struggling with mental health issues beyond their training, and later drive them hundreds of miles for behavioral health assistance. That delays how quickly someone in trouble gets help and it consumes law enforcement time and resources.

Enter the new year-long Virtual Crisis Care pilot program, funded by $1 million from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, in partnership with the South Dakota Unified Judicial System and Avera eCARE and in collaboration with the South Dakota Sheriffs’ Association and community mental health centers.

Under the Virtual Crisis Care program, law enforcement and court services officers in many South Dakota counties will be equipped with tablets that will provide remote video conferencing with Avera eCARE in Sioux Falls, with behavioral health experts on-call around the clock to provide safety assessments. The team can then work to arrange follow-up care with a local community health center.

"Today in mental health, unfortunately, it's the only medical disorder that can end a person up in jail, could end a person not getting the proper treatment," said Helmsley Trustee Walter Panzirer, who has worked as a law enforcement officer and paramedic. "Heart attacks, you go to the hospital. It should be the same for a complete mental health breakdown. People need mental health care access and help. And that's what this program is going to do."

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The program will initially roll out to officers in 23 counties with South Dakota, with plans to eventually expand it across the state and serve as a model for use nationwide.

An Avera eCARE behavioral health specialist takes part in a teleconference as part of the $1 million Virtual Crisis Care pilot program, which connects law enforcement officers in South Dakota with behavioral health experts around the clock to help with calls to aid those suffering mental health crises. (Submitted/Avera Health)
An Avera eCARE behavioral health specialist takes part in a teleconference as part of the $1 million Virtual Crisis Care pilot program, which connects law enforcement officers in South Dakota with behavioral health experts around the clock to help with calls to aid those suffering mental health crises. (Submitted/Avera Health)

South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson, who has been a champion of efforts to better aid those with mental health issues, said the Virtual Crisis Care program has the potential to "revolutionize the criminal justice system in South Dakota" by changing the trajectory of those entering the system due to mental health issues.

"Those of us who have been in the criminal justice system know all too well too many people we see coming into the system — sure, they've been charged with a crime, but why did they commit that crime? The underlying reason is mental illness in all too many cases," he said.

Gilbertson said many county sheriffs quickly signed up to take part in the program upon hearing about it, eager to get 24/7 access to behavioral health experts and cut costs and time spent transporting people to sometimes far-away mental health facilities.

"Originally we were going to do a pilot project with only four counties, but the word spread among the sheriffs about this program, and we started to get other sheriffs to volunteer," he said.