Why these cities don’t send police to some 911 calls

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People suffering from mental or behavioral health crises and addiction have often been subjected to the use of force, arrest and imprisonment by the police. In last weeks newsletter we talked briefly about some efforts around the country to change that, and this week we dig deeper.

One of the most common new approaches, and one that has gained traction since 2020, is civilian joint response programs, in which behavioral health specialists, often social workers, show up to certain emergency calls alongside the police. These can include situations such as suicide threats, drug overdoses and psychiatric episodes. Typically, team officers have special training in crisis intervention. These programs tend to be popular with law enforcement, while some critics argue they don’t do enough to get police out of the situation.

Generally, these teams aim to de-escalate any crisis or conflict, avoiding arrest and resolving the reason for the emergency call, especially if it is a simple one. This week, the New Jersey Monitor reported that a call for a welfare check on a woman with anxiety ended with the [state] An agent collecting his new mobile phone from the post office and fixing a broken toilet and emergency call control setting up his new phone.

The Monitor also found that the program prevented arrests or the use of police force in 95% of responses.

Alternate response programs are closely related strategies in which social workers or behavioral health specialists attend calls instead of police officers. These teams only respond to calls with a low likelihood of violence, and many also engage in proactive work, trying to connect people with behavioral health issues to services outside the context of a crisis. In 2020, my colleague Christie Thompson wrote about an alternative response program in Olympia, Washington, inspired by a long-standing program in Eugene, Oregon known as CAHOOTS.

These programs can be easier to build long-term relationships with because they are less affiliated with law enforcement than correspondents. One of the biggest things we’ve had to overcome is the idea that we’re going to be snitches, an Olympia official told Thompson in 2020. It’s about reassuring people that we’re not running. [their names] by orders or anything like that.

Programs vary greatly from site to site in focus and scale. In Eugene, a small city of less than 200,000, CAHOOTS, which has been around since 1989, answers 20 percent of 911 calls. Meanwhile, New York City’s B-HEARD program, which is only three years old in a diverse city of 8.5 million, responded to about a quarter of the mental health calls in the precincts where it operated in the first half of 2023. Mental health calls make up 10% of all 911 calls in the city, according to officials. In Denver, a study by the city’s STAR program found that the alternative response model reduced low-level crime.

One of the problems CAHOOTS workers said they run into is that some of the people they serve are afraid to call 911 because of past traumatic interactions with the police. A related effort also gaining traction across the country is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which the federal government launched in 2022. The program focuses primarily on providing phone and text support, but it can lead to face-to-face responses in certain situations. too.

Mental health providers have shown broad approval of 988 and it has strong support from the general public in polls. But it’s also not widely known, and according to a RAND Corporation analysis released this week, there are major inefficiencies around how 988 and 911 calls are dispatched and exchanged. Some activists have raised alarm that the program still it can lead to a police response in some circumstances, as well as mental health treatment against people’s will. California and New York City are just a few places that have recently tried to push to expand government authority to mandate mental health treatment.

Several jurisdictions are also investing in crisis intervention centers on the premise that jails aren’t designed to handle behavioral health crises and that emergency rooms aren’t always much better. These crisis centers are intended to provide short-term behavioral health care, including psychiatric stabilization and substance withdrawal treatment in a setting that is less restrictive and less disruptive to a person’s life than a hospital or a jail, Nevada Current reported.

Other approaches look beyond crises and emergencies and seek to promote non-police responses to chronic, low-level criminal activities (such as drug possession, prostitution, and petty theft) that arise from unmet behavioral health needs or of poverty

We want to have an alternative response to a much broader range of situations than just a non-criminal crisis, said Lisa Daugaard, the lead architect of Seattle’s Let Everyone Advance with Dignity program, which launched in 2011.

Since then, the LEAD model, which stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, has been exported to other cities and works to address public safety issues without punishment or incarceration. Social workers with LEAD help people secure stable housing, drug treatment, and other behavioral health services.

All of these different efforts are vulnerable to changes in political power, public opinion, and funding from government and private sponsors. In Iowa, members of Co-Response programs are concerned that a plan to overhaul and centralize state mental health and disability services could leave them out. In Minneapolis, a recent federal audit found that in 2020, the Trump administration used a seriously flawed process to deny the city $900,000 for its LEAD program. In the denial, a Trump official noted that some city councilors had expressed support for defunding the police movement.

And this week, House Republicans called for a financial investigation into the 988 program after finding that more than 80 percent of federal money to help states, territories and tribes implement the 988 hotline remains unspent .

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