Caring Comes Naturally for SPO James Ballard of the Goshen PD
My mother passed away when I was 10, and my dad was never really a part of my life. I was raised by my grandparents, Jim and Mary Anne Clardy. They were good, blue collar people, factory workers—but I had some wildness in me and I might have tested their mettle here and there. When I was 14 they went away to spend some time at their lake cottage, 230 miles away, and while they were gone I took my grandfather’s 1978 Chrysler Cordoba out for a joyride, and I ended up wrecking it.
I left the car and ran all the way home—through the woods, through the creek—trying to figure out a plan for what I was going to do. Trying to cover my tracks, I reported the car as stolen to a responding Mishawaka police officer. But the whole thing quickly sprawled and went from bad to worse, and I ended up getting in touch that night with my aunt, who was married to a South Bend police officer named Sgt. Eldon Bradley.
Sgt. Bradley came and talked to me, he was understanding and helped me to really calm down. I told him the truth that night about what had really happened, and he made it clear he was there to help me. Sgt. Bradley took me to the police department the very next day to wait for my grandparents to come back to town, on account of the trouble I caused, and I remember as I sat there waiting I could just imagine my grandpa driving home and gritting his teeth, with plenty of time—230 miles worth—to figure out just how he was going to kick my butt.
When my grandpa finally got to the station, he told Sgt. Bradley to put me in jail and throw away the key.
But, instead of going that route, Sgt. Bradley had a different idea. He offered to have me come spend every Sunday with him and his family; to go to church and have brunch—to be a part of their lives, and I did that every Sunday until I was 18 years old. When Sgt. Bradley welcomed me into his family it made a huge impact on my life. He was like the father I never had. He became an important mentor of mine, and helped guide me toward a path in life; which would become a career in law enforcement.
All these years later, I’m the first-ever Behavioral Health Response Coordinator for the Goshen Police Department, and there is so much about this important role that correlates directly to what happened to me when I was 14.
One of the first and most important things I can do in my position is to let people know, when I respond to a call, that I care—just like Eldon Bradley cared about me, back when I was a 14-year-old kid who made a mistake. My job is to make sure that, when a situation develops involving a personal crisis or a mental health situation, we can interact with people in ways that can lead to positive outcomes. People have hard times, and trauma, and people make mistakes in life. That doesn’t mean you can’t move forward.
We can try to make sure that people in crisis, or who are having mental health episodes, are treated with care by law enforcement and end up—when it’s all said and done—with access to opportunities and services that can lead to improvements in their condition, and in their lives.
Jail not always the answer
The largest mental health facilities in this country—in every state, across the board—are our jails. And that’s a problem because, in many instances involving personal crisis or mental health, jail is not the right answer.
When you consider what we’ve been through in the world the past several years; and our aging population; and the fact that a lot of people don’t have time or resources to care for elderly or down-on-their-luck family members like they used to, we’re looking at mental health issues across the country that could potentially get even worse and lead to more people in jail who might be better served elsewhere.
That’s why I’m grateful to be in this role—and the City of Goshen has been far at the forefront on this. It’s fairly uncommon for a smaller city like Goshen, with a small police department, to have a full-time Behavioral Health Response Coordinator—there are states that are just now starting to look into the development of Crisis Intervention Teams to be better equipped for dealing with mental health situations.
I think this speaks to this city itself; there’s a very strong sense of community in Goshen, and a very high level of collective social conscience and compassion, but there are also high expectations in Goshen. Expectations that the people of Goshen can be better, and do better, and get better; and expectations that law enforcement can do more, and do better, in supporting and helping citizens who are in crisis.
This also speaks to Goshen’s leadership. It speaks to the vision of former mayor Jeremy Stutsman, and it speaks to the commitment and capacity of Mayor Gina Leichty in taking over and keeping things working smoothly and being dedicated to the important causes that matter to the people of Goshen.
And it speaks to collaboration. From Oaklawn Psychiatric Center—which recently procured grant money to create a crisis center right here in Goshen—to Goshen Health and the Police Department and the Fire Department, there are so many stakeholders involved in coordinating our Behavioral Health initiatives.
As for me, I tell people all the time that if they are having a crisis or a mental health episode that they can call me on my cell phone, (574) 536-1790, anytime, 24/7, or email me. That’s what I’m here for, and you wouldn’t believe how often I get a call at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. from someone who needs to talk.
Positive outcomes not a pipe dream
I’ve seen a lot in my years in law enforcement, but I think there was one experience that really stands out and speaks to the role that I’m in now. I was with the Elkhart Police Department for over 23 years, and I spent time as the Downtown River District Liaison. The work was somewhat in-line with what I now do in Goshen, I was a mental health liaison downtown and I would do outreach with the homeless in Elkhart.
It was August in downtown Elkhart, and it was a very hot day. A scorcher. One of those days when you just don’t want to even be outside. And there was a man at a picnic table who didn’t look right at all. You could just see in his eyes that something was wrong and he was having a mental health crisis. He told me he’d had some medical issues and lost his job, and that—as a result—his girlfriend had put him out.
He had nowhere to go.
He was in rough shape, overall, and he was obviously in a bad way, emotionally, but he also just looked dehydrated. He was having a serious problem, and I knew we’d eventually talk more about what was transpiring—but, first things first, I could tell this man just needed some fluids. So I went and got him something to drink—some cold orange juice, I think it was—and then I came back. We sat and talked—with me doing more listening than talking, like an officer should when trying to de-escalate—and he opened up to me about what he was feeling and experiencing, and as a result I was able to get him connected that day with the facilities and services that would be most beneficial for him.
Time went by and I really didn’t think of that incident all that much, and then one day out of nowhere I got a call from the chief’s office telling me there was a man in the lobby who wanted to meet with me. I went over to the lobby and there was the man from that hot day in August, months before.
He just wanted to thank me.
He told me that he’d wanted to harm himself that day, that he was feeling suicidal, and that when I stopped to talk to him and then went out of my way to get him something to drink—and then came back and sat down next to him to give him my ear—it made him feel like someone still cared about him. It didn’t feel like I was just doing my job, or just giving him a handout; he felt like he was being given a hand-up. He just wanted to come in and thank me for the way I handled it. That shook me. He told me he was able to get his medical issues under control after that, and that he’d found a new job, and even a new girlfriend.
Communication is paramount
The phrase Primum Non Nocere is from the medical field. It means First, do no harm. But I think it applies to law enforcement as well. The goal of law enforcement is ultimately to help people, not to hurt them or make things worse for them, and that first point of contact with someone is always crucial.
Communication is one of the most important roles of any police officer, and in the position of Behavioral Health Response Coordinator communication is the absolute key. Before you can help someone who’s having a personal crisis or a mental health episode, you have to be able to talk to them and get them to talk to you. And to be able to do that, before anything else in the world, they have to know you care.
Once I get to that point where someone knows I care, then—thanks to our stakeholders, our leaders, our programs, and our community—there’s a good chance to help someone going through a personal crisis or a mental health situation. And for me, it’s pretty easy to care.
SPO James Ballard is the Behavioral Health Response Coordinator for the Goshen Police Department. SPO Ballard, also a Crisis Intervention Team trainer, is a founding member and the chairman of the Riding to Remember Fallen Police, Firefighter & Veterans Charity Ride and a founding member of the Blue Knights of Indiana Chapter VIII. SPO Ballard also serves on the Board of Directors for Faith Mission in Elkhart and the Center for Community Justice.
Written by Jake Sandock
Original publish date Sept. 2023