Posted by Ed Fink on Apr 13, 2024
In 1989, a New York Magazine article by Eric Pooley, offered the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads.” Only on rare occasions do we read about the positive efforts made by the women and men in blue and how they quietly work to prevent human tragedy and the bloodshed which may accompany it. Madison Police Officer Mackenzie Cole, a member of the Madison Police Mental Health Unit, (MHU) is just one of those people. Officer Cole recently addressed members of The Rotary Club of Madison West Middleton. She told her personal story and the work of her unit.
Madison Police Officer Mackenzie Cole, a member of the Madison Police Mental Health Unit, (MHU)
Officer Mackenzie Cole, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Madison, became an officer in 2020 because she wanted to “help people.” She came to the job with a degree in psychology and legal studies, and additional coursework in criminal justice. At one time, she considered a medical career, even volunteering for a time as an EMT. Officer Cole worked as an intern at the State Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation. However, she seems to have found fulfillment in her police unit’s special empathetic role. In high school, Mackenzie was a three-sport athlete in Burlington, and continued in athletics at UW with a couple years on the rowing team.

We’ve all read stories about people with mental health issues finding their way into the criminal justice system, when they act out in socially and legally unacceptable ways. Some individuals go from one arrest to another, followed by incarceration, release, and all too-often followed by more of the same. The problems are likely first met by MPD’s officers and sergeants working patrol. All of these men and women have a basic education on mental health issues. Importantly, they are supported by the Mental Health Unit (MHU), consisting of one such officer in each of the six Madison Police Districts. Officer Mackenzie Cole is one of these specially-trained MHU Members. She is the mental health officer for the Madison West District. In addition, there are about 50 Mental Health Liaison Officers (MHLOs) assigned to patrol, who voluntarily participate in additional training, and tasks in support of the values of the Mental Health Unit.

Given all the numerous encounters of a growing Dane County population, one gets the impression the Madison Police Department is building a solid foundation for addressing mental health situations, but more of these specialists are needed. Officer Cole acknowledged their interaction and support from Law Enforcement Crisis Workers (LCEWs), mental health clinicians employed by Journey Mental Health.

The Madison Police Department’s MHOs and those associated often make home visits, connect people with community resources and work at building trust and report with those with whom they come in contact. They will assist in developing a safety/response plan. A visit with a person might explain to him or her what a police response might look like, which can assuage anxiety. These officers might also add safety alerts to the CAD system, thereby alerting future first responders to the same persons. They will gather information from the person in crisis themselves, family members, guardians, and members of the person’s care or treatment team. In some cases, officers are able to access some of this information, while in route to a call.

In answer to questions, Officer Cole mentioned the Madison Fire Department’s Community Alternative Response Emergency Service. (CARES). CARES is staffed by the Fire Department and Journey Mental Health, which goes on some calls, during limited hours. We also found the Dane County Sheriff’s Department has a group of mental health deputies, as well. According to a police website, “The mission of the Madison Police Department Mental Health Unit is to provide a coordinated, professional and compassionate police response to individuals affected by mental illness and their families. The Mental Health Unit works collaboratively with partner agencies to achieve improved outcomes for individuals affected by mental illnesses or suffering a crisis by connecting them to needed services and diverting them away from the criminal justice system whenever possible. The goals of the Mental Health Unit are to improve safety for officers and all members of the community and reduce calls for police service related to mental health crises.”

Need Help:
For Emergencies (911, 988 or Journey Mental Health) - 608-280-2600
For non-emergencies, i.e. police, MHU or CARES (the latter upon availability from
8:00am - 8:00pm, Monday to Friday) 608-266-4275