Texas A&M Police Officers Team Up With Mental Health Professionals As Part Of New Program
Dressed in casual clothes and a baseball cap, Megan McCarty doesn’t look like your typical first responder.
When she’s out on campus with Texas A&M’s University Police Department (UPD), McCarty doesn’t wear a badge or a gun — just a protective vest marked “counselor” on the back and “ACES Team” on the front.
Short for Assistance, Connection and Engagement Services, the ACES program is a new partnership between UPD and University Health Services, pairing police officers with licensed professional counselors to respond to calls with a mental health component. According to McCarty, that can encompass everything from traffic accidents to student welfare checks and more serious mental health emergencies. As the university’s first ACES co-responder, she has joined officers on a wide variety of calls since arriving on campus last April.
“It’s really any type of call where a mental health professional could offer support,” McCarty said. “Even with something like a minor car wreck, where perhaps a student is distraught or experiencing shock, it can be helpful for a co-responder to be there.”
Once on the scene, she can draw on her expertise to assess the situation, offer immediate support to those in distress, and recommend additional mental health resources as needed. For the officers she works with, McCarty has been a game changer, says UPD Chief Mike Johnson.
“It’s been great, for one, just because of who Megan is. She is very engaging, she’s very forward thinking, very active in building this program,” Johnson said. “She comes to us with a lot of experience, so I couldn’t think of a better way to start our program.”
Especially in situations where a person is reluctant to interact with police, or may pose a danger to themselves or others, having someone like McCarty along can make all the difference, says UPD field training officer Aoife Nester ’18.
“On the calls that we’ve been on together, it’s been a positive response,” Nester said. “I’ve talked to parents too, and they’ve been grateful that it’s not just law enforcement showing up — it’s someone who can more thoroughly assess where their child is at.”
Most importantly, Nester said, McCarty can quickly connect students with counseling and other mental health resources offered by University Health Services, even escorting them to the counseling office to receive immediate attention.
“We get to do that right then and there,” Nester said. “Megan will walk with them.”
A New Approach
Assistant Director of Counseling Services Dr. Kari Becker oversees the ACES program for University Health Services. She says ACES draws inspiration from similar initiatives at city police departments across the country, tailoring the co-responder model to meet the specific needs of the university community. McCarty came to A&M with a wealth of experience working on a similar program at the K-12 level.
“There aren’t a lot of universities that have done this, so it’s been really exciting to do something innovative like this,” Becker said. “It’s rewarding to see it come to fruition and actually see Megan out there in the field.”
According to Sgt. Jonathan Blythe, the partnership has given UPD an opportunity to remain at the forefront of effective mental health crisis intervention — a major priority of the department over the last decade.
“Ten years ago we started the first Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) here,” Blythe said. “In the mental health aspect, we’ve always tried to be a leader, not a follower. We want to do right by these young men and women that are going to school here.”
As part of her work with UPD, McCarty also provides officers with training and education. Blythe says this kind of knowledge is especially useful on college campuses because of the unique mental health challenges that exist among students, many of whom are living away from home for the first time.
“A lot of times when people have underlying mental illnesses, that’s when it becomes evident because they lose their support structure and they add in all this stress,” Blythe said. “That’s the demographic we’re dealing with, so this is what’s expected of us.”
In light of the program’s initial success, UPD and University Health Services are looking to add a second ACES co-responder in the near future. Eventually, Johnson said, he hopes to expand the partnership even further.
“I would like to see three or four co-responders and a case manager,” he said. “I think we have an opportunity to provide a great resource to our community, and that’s exactly what the ACES program is for us.”
As McCarty prepares to wrap up her first year at A&M this spring, she says she’s “excited to watch the program grow,” and encouraged by the enthusiasm she’s seen from mental health professionals and law enforcement alike.
“I hear a lot about the Aggie Spirit, and I really do feel like I’ve experienced it,” McCarty said. “Working with University Health Services and the University Police Department, I have found that people in Aggieland truly care, and are consistently thinking of ways to better support the community.”