Alternative Dispatch Programs for Mental Health 911 Calls Piloted in 13 Cities

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Seattle 911 Call Center, 2001. Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr.

Thirteen cities have completed an eight-week “policy-sprint” to develop programs to create an emergency response that assigns civilian mental health counselors to respond to 911 calls, CNN reports. 

The Alternative Dispatch Programs, developed by Everytown For Gun Safety and What Works Cities, is aimed at reducing the burden of police who ordinarily respond to such calls. Organizers say it will help save lives, and save cities money.

“Not everyone has the perfect answer but having conversations, finding possible ways to work through this, is the start,” said Naureen Kabir, a senior policy adviser at Everytown, a gun violence prevention group.

“That’s the first step. We’re encouraging cities to start with a pilot (program), limited geography, (specific) type of calls.”

Kabir continued, “Working through things with support service providers before doing this at scale is important. That’s when a lot of these conversations need to take place. There’s no great perfect answer to this — but they’re conversations cities need to have.”

No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

While efforts to create groundbreaking social services for communities have taken months and years to develop, one thing many can agree on is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach as every city has different needs, procedures, laws, and money to pay for change, CNN explains. 

“Some things you know it’s the right way. In this space at this time, we don’t have a best practice of emergency response, and we’re trying to help cities use emerging evidence there and trying to innovate based on their communities,” said Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities, which advocates for data-driven best practices at the local level.

During the eight-week program with Everytown and What Works Cities, the program advisors emphasized that they weren’t prescribing a specific program to each city, but rather, encouraging each community to look at its own 911 call data, existing social service network, and other factors to determine what is and what isn’t working for them. 

With the advocate’s guidance in the program, Phoenix officials approved a tentative spending plan that would expand an existing pilot program by adding $15 million for their Community Assistance Program. 

Albuquerque officials, who also participated in the eight-week program, passed a $7 million budget for the Albuquerque Community Safety Department. 

Mariela Ruiz-Angel, director of that department, spoke with CNN, highlighting how their needs are different from others. 

“We have to figure out how to do things in a different light,” Ruiz-Angel explained. “How do we support our current public safety infrastructure in a different way that’s integrated, how do we really start to systemically change how we look at public safety.”

See Also: Eight States Weigh Bills to Improve Police Response to Mental Health Crises

Examples of Alternative Dispatch Programs

Within Everytown’s Research and Policy report regarding the latest eight-week policy sprint, the research group outlines noteworthy programs and different approaches that cities have taken. 

In Eugene, Oregon, advocates are praising their Crisis Response Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) Program, which has been in place for over three decades. CAHOOTS provides residents with access to free, trained, civilian first responders for incidents specifically involving mental health episodes, substance abuse, and individuals experiencing homelessness. 

“Our work is recognizing there are these exact differences between a small college community surrounded by a forest in the middle of Oregon, compared to Illinois or New Jersey or wherever,” said Tim Black, director of consulting at CAHOOTS, in an interview with CNN. “This sprint is all about allowing folks to ask questions they need to ask to build something that’s going to work for that community specifically.”

Researchers have found that the CAHOOTS responders only need police intervention in just 2 percent of their calls, saving the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million annually in public safety costs, and $14 million in ambulance and emergency response costs, according to Everytown.

In Houston, a 2015 Crisis Call Diversion (CCD) Program is still successfully helping communities. The program transfers non-life-threatening mental health calls to telehealth professionals staffed within the 911 call center. 

A 2017 internal evaluation found that the CCD program processed over 7,000 calls in a year and diverted nearly 30 percent of them from a police patrol response — saving Houston an estimated $860,218 annually, according to Everytown.

In Los Angeles, the mayor signed a budget Wednesday setting aside $3 million for a pilot program run by a group that helped connect individuals experiencing homelessness with services over the summer, CNN details. 

While these are promising advances, advocates acknowledge that the process isn’t always perfect, and change will be glacial — slow and steady. 

See Also: Indianapolis Mental Health Crisis Services Face Scrutiny after FedEx Attack 

The 13 cities that were a part of the eight-week “policy-sprint” included: Albany, New York; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Providence, Rhode Island; Louisville, Kentucky; Boston; Chicago; Phoenix; San Antonio; and Seattle, according to the advocacy groups, which did not identify one of the cities, according to CNN.

Additional Reading: Why ‘Terrible’ Police Training on Mental Health Leads to Unnecessary Deaths

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