Diverting 911 Calls to Improve Mental Health Response

Everyone is taught from a young age that when they are experiencing an emergency, they should call the police for help. People are taught to call 911 whenever something emergent arises, whether it be physical danger, a crime in the neighbourhood, or a mental health crisis.

It is widespread for family members or friends to call 911 on behalf of their loved ones. They call emergency services with good intentions – to get their loved ones the help they need. However, calling 911 leads to police officers responding to the scene.

Police officers responding to emergency calls is not an adverse circumstance. Police officers are a vital part of the community in ensuring that everyone is safe. While they receive a lot of training on de-escalation, laws, investigating, and more, they do not receive training to manage every crisis called into the emergency line.

They are limited in what they can offer in certain situations, such as mental health crises. Therefore, we should not put all the pressure on them to address every problem that is called into 911 and consider diverting mental health crisis calls to mental health professionals.

As we have seen across the country, mental health response has taken on various forms. A police officer may arrive on the scene with a clinician known as a co-responder. Clinicians or social workers may arrive on the scene without law enforcement if it has been determined there is no threat.

Each community will determine which mental health response best fits their circumstances.

Limitations of Police Officers Responding to Mental Health Crises  

  • It can be time-consuming. Proper de-escalation of people amid a mental health crisis can take a lot of time. It takes a lot of talking, sometimes silence to allow them to calm down, and a lot of patience. While many police officers are more than happy and capable of offering this level of patience and dedication, they have a lot of other calls that require their presence.  Taking a patrol car and officers out of service puts constraints on policing. Mental health crises do not always require their presence. Sometimes officers will need to ensure the safety of the clinicians before they engage the individual with counseling. Other times, social workers or clinicians may determine that an officer’s presence is unnecessary. Best practices and protocols need to be developed for these types of situations.
  • They are not adequately trained to handle mental health emergencies. Police officers often are not trained in managing mental health crises at all. Even the police officers who receive CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) only receive a small amount of information regarding mental health and substance abuse compared to trained mental health professionals. However, mental health professionals, such as social workers, have received master’s-level training and continuing education credits each year. They are experts in the field of mental health and addictions. They are adequately trained to manage and deescalate mental health crises to avoid people going to jail when they need mental health treatment. Whether a community utilizes a co-responder or community response program having a social worker handle mental health calls is usually the most beneficial option.
  • Lack of alternatives for people suffering from mental health. The most beneficial outcome for people in a mental health crisis is linkage to mental healthcare, whether outpatient or inpatient. Unfortunately, interventions involving only police officers may mean patients are not being directed to appropriate community services.  Another study done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that people amid a mental health crisis were more likely to have police respond, resulting in 2 million people jailed every year who may have benefited from mental health intervention. This isn’t a condemnation of law enforcement. Many departments do not have an alternative destination to bring mental health patients. Sometimes they can take them to the local hospital, but they are usually not equipped for mental healthcare. With mental health programs being established in various forms across the country, law enforcement is being given multiple options for mental health calls.

Mental Health Jail Diversion Programs Across the US

            Mental health jail diversion programs are designed to bridge the gap between police officers and their lack of expertise in mental health crises. Co-responder, CIT, Community Response, and Jail Diversion programs have been developed in cities all over the United States with slightly different models depending on the city. However, they are all similar in that their goal is to have mental health professionals respond to more mental health-related calls since that is their expertise. This doesn’t mean that they replace the police officers. Instead, they collaborate with the police officers to understand that there are certain situations that either profession has more expertise. Therefore, it’s essential that these professions always remain in communication. This can be done by using software like Julota.

            Here are some examples of co-responder programs throughout the United States that have had positive results within their communities.

  • CAHOOTS (Eugene, Oregon) – In 2019, police backup was needed during less than 1% of the 24,000 calls they responded to.
  • STAR (Denver, Colorado) – This is a new program to Denver that started in 2020. In the program’s first six months, they responded to 2,500 calls, only 748 of which required police assistance.
  • MCAT (Indianapolis, Indiana) – This program helped respond to mental health emergencies and relieve other first responders whose services were not needed for the remainder of the call. A survey of the police officers in the district this program served found that 85% of the officers found MCAT very useful or extremely useful as an additional resource when responding to emergencies.
  • LEAD (Seattle, Washington) – This program allows enrolled individuals to receive mental health or addiction treatment immediately with the understanding that if they participate, they will not have legal charges filed against them.

Pros and Cons of Mental Health Jail Diversion Programs


  • Less involvement in the criminal justice system. People in a mental health crisis benefit most from medical and behavioral health intervention. It also gives law enforcement other options than incarceration.
  • Access to services. These programs help link people to the necessary treatment they need for their mental health and/or substance use concerns.
  • Efficient use of the officers’ time. Police officers can be relieved from responding to calls where their services are unnecessary.
  • Significant long-term cost savings to the community. The estimated cost savings per year because of implementing a jail diversion program is $350,000.


  • Lack of funding. These programs require a significant amount of funds to run successfully. Programs often are funded by grants or by gaining community leadership support to secure more funds in the budget. It is impossible to run a successful jail diversion program without the necessary funds.
  • Facility capacity and limited insurance benefits. Communities are often limited in offering services to every community member who needs them. Additionally, limited insurance benefits make it even more difficult for people to receive the care they need. Mental healthcare is too expensive out-of-pocket for people to obtain it without access to affordable insurance.
  • Lack of follow-up. Jail diversion programs will link people to treatment through hospitalization or outpatient referrals. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of follow-up to ensure that the individual continues with the treatment they need. Julota automates these follows and institutes close the loop activities.  

Improving Mental Health Jail Diversion Programs

            While these programs have found great success in the community, there are still areas in which they can improve. For example, some programs struggle to gain their trust to implement their services successfully.

Phoenix described a situation where they have a culture of erring on the side of caution.  Which leads to sending the police rather than diverting 911 calls. It’s understandable that the dispatcher would rather make sure the situation is not a threat before sending in social workers.

These programs must develop a good relationship with the community and the professionals they collaborate with so that they have trust in their program and their ability to respond to calls effectively. Once these critical people trust the program, more 911 calls will be diverted to them, allowing the community to benefit more from the program.

            Proper communication has also been a barrier for co-responder programs. Without appropriate tools to streamline communication between programs, mental health responders, and police officers, there is a communication gap. Closing this gap by increasing communication means that clients get better overall care.

 This is known as continuity of care. Software like Julota allows professionals to know if a client is engaged in services and where. If they are involved in services, they can readily contact that professional to inform them of a crisis.

If they are not engaged in services, they can get that person connected with services in their community. Then, once they are connected, Julota allows them to readily follow up on that individual to ensure all their needs have been met following the mental health crisis.

Julota Can Help Keep Communication Smooth Between Mental Health and Law Enforcement

The increased presence of mental health diversion programs means those police officers will not be present on every crisis call. However, they may respond to a call involving that individual in the future.

Therefore, they must have access to communication with the mental health professionals who responded before. Julota helps streamline this communication.

 When police officers respond to a call, they can readily see through Julota’s cloud-based software what interactions this person has had with the mental health professionals and if they are connected to treatment. Suppose a police officer comes in contact with someone in a mental health crisis. In that case, they can know right away with Julota what the person’s needs might be, such as if the co-responder unit should be called and if the individual would better be served by being hospitalized instead of incarcerated.