Philadelphia has a behavioral health specialist embedded in the police dispatch center for the first time, a step Mayor Jim Kenney said marks progress toward promised police reforms, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. With behavioral health specialists assisting in the radio room, officials said the city can better identify 911 calls that involve mental health issues and offer services to those residents instead of arresting them. The initiative includes a co-responder program, in which clinical staff and police work together to respond to such calls. “The goal of the program is to safely deflect individuals with behavioral health needs away from the criminal justice system and into more appropriate behavioral health care or social services in the community,” Kenney said.
The new program places clinical staffers with dispatchers to determine the best response to calls from the public or patrol officers involving behavioral health. A “triage desk” will be established to identify those calls, the city said. Officials said planning for the program has been under way since last year.The issue of police responses to 911 calls has gained attention in recent months, as protesters demanded police reform and pushed to “defund the police.” Kenney said, “We’re … trying to get items that were traditionally 911 calls out of the hands of police, because it’s really not their training or responsibility to deal with people that are experiencing addiction or mental health issues or homelessness.” In a pilot program that embedded outreach workers with police in one area, officials said they made more than 150 connections to services without making any arrests. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said embedding clinical staff with 911 dispatchers will significantly improve her department’s responses.