Johnson County Police Department is hiring a mental health liaison

Kieonna Pope will work with authorities to respond to calls where there are signs of mental health crisis and distress.

Grace Smith

The Johnson County Administration Building is seen on South Dubuque Street in Iowa City on Sunday, November 27, 2022.

Johnson County law enforcement will now be equipped with a mental health professional to assist in emergency situations.

Mental Health Liaison Kieonna Pope will work with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, the Coralville Police Department and the North Liberty Police Department as a joint mental health liaison.

The position is a collaboration between the agencies and CommUnity Crisis Services – where Pope is employed. The collaboration was announced in a press release from the City of North Liberty on Nov. 7.

Pope will work with authorities to respond to calls where there are signs of mental health crisis and distress, the release said.

“The partnership will focus on providing improved access to mental health resources, hospital and prison distraction, and other treatment services for individuals with mental illness or co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders,” the press release reads.

Pope will be based out of the North Liberty Police Department and will be in contact with the other two agencies via phone and email.

Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said a person at the three agencies will allow them to test demand for the position in the area.

“This is brand new, so obviously we don’t know what the reasonable workload is for one person,” he said. “We will continuously monitor and evaluate the development of the program over the next year. It is entirely possible that one day each agency will have its own liaison.”

Kunkel said there were two main reasons for bringing a mental health liaison to the authorities.

“It’s another effort by local law enforcement to connect people in crisis situations with appropriate resources and achieve better long-term outcomes,” he said. “Second, we’re trying to reduce law enforcement contact with people who really don’t need a law enforcement response.”

Johnson County, Coralville and North Liberty aren’t the first police departments to forge a mental health connection. Over the past five years, the role has been implemented in Cedar Rapids, Ottumwa and Iowa City divisions.

Kunkel said the three departments gave advice to add a mental health liaison to his department.

“I think the most important piece of advice I received is to make sure the right person is chosen for the position,” he said. “The key to success is making sure we have the right person for the job.”

Iowa City Police Department mental health liaison Joachim Seelos was brought into the department in 2021.

Iowa City Police Department Sgt. Andrew McKnight said the department has benefited from a mental health affiliation.

“One of the biggest impacts that [Seelos] what our department has had is the increased ability to provide strong follow-up services to the people he deals with,” he said. “He is able to communicate with his clients after their crisis and then guide them to the appropriate level of service based on the nature of things that are going on in their lives.”

Seelos answered 11 mental health calls on Nov. 16, McKnight said. He said the response of a psychiatrist, rather than a uniformed police officer, helped de-escalate the scene of the calls.

At the Iowa City Police Department, Seelos responds to calls that determine there is no crime threat, McKnight said.

“Let’s just say we’re dealing with a call on behalf of a student or friend who has shared on Facebook that they are depressed and considering suicide,” he said. “When we can establish that there are no guns and no threat, this is an opportunity for the public to have a response to a mental health crisis without police involvement.”