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  • Writer's pictureJoe Lyons

Vets Helping Vets

Vets Helping Vets A Criminal Justice Update

It’s a challenge that law enforcement officers often face — how to help military veterans who are homeless or addicted to drugs or battling psychological demons, or all the above. With the ongoing support and encouragement of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, more law enforcement agencies in the state are now considering how to better help veterans in crisis by using the vets they have on staff and the resources in their communities. In one case, in Stark County, more than 20 agencies are teaming with government and community partners to launch a veterans response program in the next several months. Meanwhile, other agencies across the state are in the early stages of discussion with the Attorney General’s Office. All these efforts, in one way or another, are the outgrowth of programs that have already taken root — programs that are uniquely adapted to the needs and resources of their communities. The Lucas County Sheriff’s Office, for example, has focused on vets locked up in the county jail. The Cincinnati Police Department, which started its Military Liaison Group in 2014, emphasizes outreach by cops on the beat. And the Dayton Police Department works with the Dayton VA Medical Center to incorporate veteran-specific training for its crisis intervention team, which dates to 2002. “My office is here to help law enforcement agencies understand how this concept can work for their situation,” Attorney General Dave Yost said. “This is not a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. In the end, the best way to help vets in crisis is to involve the key players in a community.” The push to expand local veterans response programs has been a collaborative effort involving Yost and Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy, a former police officer. Regional directors from the Attorney General’s Office work directly with law enforcement agencies to find out whether they operate veterans response programs and, if not, how they can help them start one. The AG’s team has created a quick reference guide for starting a veterans response program. To that end, regional directors also frequently sit in on the initial organizational meetings. Additionally, the AG’s office offers military pins for veterans response programs so officers can indicate their branch of military service — a small detail that often opens the door to better communication with struggling veterans. Training is another important area, so the team is working with the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy to provide a free video course on dealing with vets in crisis. Ohio has the fifth-largest veteran population in the United States — nearly 730,000. Research shows that troops of the post-9/11 era have had more frequent and longer deployments, higher levels of exposure to combat, and a higher incidence of serious disability, including post-traumatic stress, than did their predecessors. It follows, then, that veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have significantly higher rates of suicide and mental illness, homelessness, and drug and alcohol dependence than the civilian population. Tragically, this is true despite the government and non-government services that exists for veterans — a safety net that also includes 29 veterans treatment courts in Ohio that collaborate with local Veterans Affairs offices. The problem is, a lot of veterans don’t know what resources exist or how to access them. And many have no idea about the health care benefits they’re entitled to. Law enforcement agencies are a logical means of connecting with veterans, both to direct them to resources and help defuse crisis situations. Officials in Lucas and Stark counties developed their programs in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office and after consulting other agencies, including the Cincinnati PD’s Military Liaison Group. Dave Corlett, who helped start the group nine years ago as a patrol sergeant, served in the military and knew firsthand that vets in crisis respond better to fellow vets. “I’d tell them, ‘I’m not here as the police. I’m here as your brother veteran,’ ” he said. Corlett’s first order of business was to connect with the Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Hamilton County Veterans Treatment Court, where he came to know the presiding judge and the Veterans Justice Outreach worker. All were instrumental to the success of the Military Liaison Group. Corlett also knew that he needed help from outside the VA community. “We found we were dealing with a lot of veterans who weren’t eligible for VA care,” he said. “So we had to develop a network of nonprofits that were willing to help any veteran regardless of their circumstances.” All officers underwent training to learn about the Military Liaison Group’s purpose, how to recognize post-traumatic stress, how to de-escalate volatile situations, what information to pass out, and how to get in touch with the 10-person team. In Lucas County, deputy sheriffs, like their counterparts in Cincinnati, wear military insignia and provide information on mental health, substance abuse and housing services. Because the sheriff’s office runs the county jail, though, they also work with vets who end up behind bars. For starters, the jail’s technology team revised the booking process so that names of inmates who served in the military are automatically sent to the county Veterans Services Commission, the Toledo Veterans Treatment Court, and the VA health center in Ann Arbor, Michigan — ensuring that they don’t fall through the cracks. To hammer home the message, three sergeants — all veterans — meet one-on-one with incarcerated vets every two weeks. “What our sergeants are trying to get across is, ‘Yes, I have a badge and you’re in an inmate jumpsuit, but we both come from the same place,’ ” said Maj. Tricia White, who oversees the program started by Sheriff John Tharp before he left office in 2020. In Stark County, meanwhile, Andrew Turowski, the police chief and assistant city manager of Louisville, is leading a countywide coalition of 20+ law enforcement agencies. The initiative began slightly more than a year ago after representatives of the Attorney General’s Office met with Judge Taryn Heath of the Stark County Honor Court to discuss veterans response programs. Judge Heath then broached the idea to the county Police Chiefs Association, citing the success of the Military Liaison Group in Cincinnati. The collaboration now includes the county’s Veterans Service Commission, Criminal Justice Information System, and the Mental Health and Addiction Services Board, as well as the Attorney General’s Office. In addition to issuing military pins and training officers to deal with veterans in crisis, the program will work closely with the county Criminal Justice Information System. The system integrates data from all courts of record in Stark County into one database, which the Veterans Service Commission can then access to reach out to vets and provide services. Turowski said law enforcement agencies are enthusiastic, and he expects the program to roll out fully in the next several months. “We’re full steam ahead,” he said. “We want our veterans to get the support they need to be productive members of society. We owe them that.”


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