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URBANA — University of Illinois students suffering from mental issues or just overwhelmed by stress now have a fully dedicated team of police employees in place to help them.

Some are trained in crisis intervention, others are licensed clinical social workers, a few know just the right place to get help and others have four legs.

While most of the members of the Community Outreach And Support Team — dubbed COAST — have been with the department for years, it’s the relatively new therapy dogs, whose sole job is to love on and reduce the stress of humans, that are the attention-getters at the police department. More on them later.

“Being a good partner with the community helps you address issues as they come up because of the trust you are building,” UI police Chief Alice Cary said of the multi-purpose team she’s been building since fall.

Cary began as chief July 20 after the resignation of Craig Stone. She praised her predecessors for having a great outreach team, but said she wanted it to have a more “holistic” approach.

“We’re still getting guns off the street and responding to crime, but having this component alongside patrol bolsters that work,” said the 34-year police veteran, who established COAST units in her prior police department roles at University of Oregon and University of Maryland.

Cary has tabbed Lt. Aaron Landers to head up the team. With 23 years of service as a UI police officer, a master’s degree in social work, and being a crisis-intervention instructor, Landers said his new duties are a “perfect fit” for his skills.

Landers will help set the agenda for the team, but some of the responsibilities Cary wants them to shoulder include crime prevention, rape-aggression defense training, connecting with community agencies, acting as a liaison for UI athletes who might have issues stemming from their notoriety, and responding to calls from students who are depressed or suicidal.

There are officers on each of the three shifts to handle “behavioral-health calls,” freeing up colleagues without that specialized training to respond to muggings or burglaries or other obvious crimes.

Cary said the COVID-19 pandemic, a contentious presidential election and just the usual stress of being away from home and in college took their toll on many students who called for help in fall.

As Urbana police Chief Bryant Seraphin observed, when someone calls 911, “it gets put in the police or fire bucket,” and that means sending a police officer to someone in mental distress.

Instead of an emergency room or jail, the officers know other resources to help those people, Cary said.

The UI officers now have help available from a full-time licensed clinical social worker, who can go along on calls and follow up with affected callers to try to make sure they get the right kind of help.

“Eventually, our goal is to have co-responders (social workers and officers) 24/7. I’m hopeful we can get the School of Social Work to get student interns in on our program as well,” Cary said.

In late December, therapy dogs Winston and Lollipop became police department employees. They joined Archie, a 2-year-old Australian shepherd/retriever mix whom Cary has had for just over a year. Plans are for another officer to get a therapy dog in March.

“They are ice-breakers for connection with the community,” said Cary, who was so overwhelmed by Archie’s acceptance at Maryland that she wanted to add therapy dogs to the UI department’s roster.

All the dogs are products of the “Paws and Stripes” program of the Brevard County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department. For several weeks, inmates train shelter dogs with the right temperaments to be therapy dogs, which are then given free to interested police departments.

Cary chose Officer Alex Tran, whom Landers refers to as a “behavioral-health detective,” to partner with a therapy dog. Wanting Landers to understand the program as well, Cary sent him to Florida in December to observe Tran in training.

She was also there with Archie that week to get him another certification.

Before he could say “chocolate Labrador,” Landers found himself training with a dog that wasn’t exactly fond of his first intended human partner. Long story short, Landers now has Winston and Tran has Lollipop.

“I had no intention of ever being a dog handler,” said Landers, who has two other dogs as pets at home. “Sometimes fate has a way of changing things.”

The dogs’ food and veterinary care are paid for by the department. Landers and Tran take care of them at work and home.

“There is something magical about dogs and being able to open people up and give them comfort,” Landers said. “The dogs are going to be used for any kind of crisis where an individual is having a hard time: mental health, large-scale casualty, fire, natural disaster, active shooter.”

Landers took Winston and Lollipop to the Champaign fire station where Dominic Smith worked to help his grieving co-workers after he and his wife died in a two-vehicle collision Dec. 26 in Iroquois County.

“They were hurting quite a bit,” Landers said of Mr. Smith’s fellow firefighters.

He took Winston to the Champaign Police Department to hang out with officers mourning the Dec. 21 death of their retired colleague, Robert Wills.

“They just wander around, people pet the dogs, love on the dogs. You’d be surprised how much happiness it gives somebody in a terrible situation,” he said, adding that therapy dogs are also being used to help reticent child victims open up about abuse they’ve suffered.

Tran, who’s also a volunteer firefighter in Savoy, took Lollipop to Winfield Village on Christmas Eve morning to comfort residents displaced by a fire.

Cary said she’s been in plenty of Zoom meetings with high-level campus administrators tasked with making important decisions.

“They are not immune to stresses, either,” she said of colleagues who make a point of asking her where Archie is if they don’t see him. He’s usually at her feet snoozing.

“When I got my COVID shot, I spent twice as long (at the I Hotel) because he was there,” she said of the people interacting with Archie, a survivor of Hurricane Dorian that hit the Bahamas in late August 2019.

Unlike drug-sniffing or bomb-detection dogs, who interact only with their handlers and are rewarded for their efforts, therapy dogs connect with all kinds of people. The interaction is their reward.

“When people ask if they can touch my dog, I’m like, ‘That’s his job,’” Landers said, adding that Winston doesn’t have a targeted retirement date.

“He might go until he drops dead because that’s what makes him happy,” he said.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).

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