How to Reduce 911 Mental Health Calls

There is no question that we need a well-functioning police force. Violent crime is a grave problem in the United States, and absolutely nothing good would come from abolishing or defunding the police. Unfortunately, it is a misunderstood concept that has been negatively politicized recently. Instead, we need to have a properly funded police force that is well trained in helping the community’s citizens in various ways.

There are many situations when the police are called. It would likely be safer and more effective to either call a mobile crisis team or have a trained mental health professional accompany the police officers. Alternatively, it would be even better if some police officers were trained to handle mental health calls appropriately. Many law enforcement agencies have already started requiring officers to go through forty hours of CIT(Crisis Intervention Training). Then, in the right situations, they would accompany the response teams that arrive.

It is estimated that more than 240 million 911 calls are made each year. Many of these calls will inevitably pertain to an incident involving someone suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues. Unfortunately, police have become the default first responders for basically every type of crisis. While this is a good thing in some circumstances, it is not even close to ideal in others. Unless the police are specifically trained in dealing with a person in the middle of a mental health crisis, having them as the first responders can sometimes be dangerous for everyone involved. Furthermore, no one is to blame here.

We need systemic change that allows police officers to be adequately trained. We also need responder programs that send trained mental health professionals out on calls, either alone or in conjunction with the police. The goal is to have safer interactions for everyone involved and reduce the number of mental health calls that the police have to respond to each day.

A few ways to protect the police and the communities they serve are by implementing crisis intervention teams, co-responder programs, and jail diversion programs. 

What Is A Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)?

CIT was first developed in Memphis in 1988. CIT is a community partnership that includes members of law enforcement, mental health, and addiction professionals, combined with people who live with mental illnesses and or substance use disorders, their families, and other advocates. CIT aims to help people suffering from addiction or mental health issues access treatment instead of arresting them and placing them in the criminal justice system. CIT promotes officer safety as well as the safety of the individuals who are in crisis.

Additionally, the goal is to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse disorders. Therefore, the main objectives of CIT are:

  1. To improve officer safety and the safety of the individuals in crisis, and
  2. To help people with mental health issues and substance abuse issues access treatment rather than involve them in the criminal justice system

What Is Co-Responder Program?

Co-Responders are people from the community who accompany police officers when 911 calls involve substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness, or even domestic violence when someone might need to find housing or childcare help. These programs are considered to be the next generation of CIT programs. Many community leaders are proponents of these types of responders. They would like them to answer the following types of calls:

  1. Behavioral health and social services calls 

There are many people trained as paramedics, clinicians, or crisis intervention specialists. These professionals could respond to low-risk calls and deal with people suffering from mental health and addiction issues and people struggling with homelessness. The Co-Responder model is an excellent way to help the folks who need help and bridge the relationship between police officers and the parts of their communities who want to give help.  

If people see police officers working with trained mental health professionals and genuinely attempting to help people, this would be beneficial for relationships with police officers and the communities they serve. 

  • Quality-of-life and conflict calls

Situations such as noise complaints, nonviolent conflicts, suspicious people, neighborhood disputes, youth behavioral issues, trespassing, and even some simple assault cases that do not involve weapons would be considered quality of life calls. In addition, the people who respond to the scene for these calls could be professionals who are trained in conflict mediation. 

It is estimated that community responders could answer anywhere from 21 percent to 38 percent of 911 calls. Lowering mental health calls frees up police officers to respond to more serious crimes where the police are genuinely needed. However, regardless of training, the simple presence of a uniformed police officer whom everyone knows is armed with a gun, a taser, and a baton can be incredibly triggering for some individuals and can create a volatile situation very quickly.

Why Should We Use Jail Diversion Programs?

Diversion programs can be beneficial for offenders who suffer from mental health disorders and substance abuse issues. Additionally, the communities they live in will benefit as well. Diverting people into treatment programs and other criminal justice diversion programs does not mean offenders do not have to take responsibility for their actions. It just means that they can benefit themselves and the community while doing so. Suppose a person is not willing to engage in a diversion program or cannot complete it successfully. In that case, they usually end up in the criminal justice system. At that point, they have to deal with their case in that manner. 

Benefits of diversion programs:

  • Maintain Employment: Diverting offenders away from jail allows them to keep their jobs, which is beneficial to everyone involved. The offender benefits and their community benefits. The offender will continue to work, take care of themselves and their family, and feel like they are doing something productive. 
  • Family and Community Support: When a person is permitted to participate in treatment instead of being sent to jail, this allows them to stay connected to their community and maintain their family support. When someone is suffering from a mental health disorder or addiction, community and family support is crucial. It helps them to function, stay healthy, and be productive. It might also benefit them in staying sober. In addition, remaining in the community but being connected with treatment services allows them to get the services they need. Outcomes like this are favorable for every single person involved. 
  • Avoid Trauma: While jail is necessary for certain types of crimes, there are many instances where jail can and should be avoided. Jail is traumatic. Being incarcerated often means being treated like less than a human being, and the entire experience can be incredibly traumatic. Experiencing jail can be traumatic and dehumanizing for anyone. However, it can be incredibly detrimental for someone who already has mental health or substance abuse issues. 
  • Address Problem Behaviors: Sending a person to jail is not the only way to address problem behaviors. Connecting someone with community treatment and resources helps someone deal with their behavioral issues and do it much more effectively. Allowing a person to address these issues without being incarcerated and dealing with the stigma of jail once they are released is very beneficial to their rehabilitation. Additionally, once someone has a criminal history or is a convicted felon, it becomes exponentially challenging to find and maintain employment. 

When we put someone in jail, they often come out with absolutely no resources to help them get a job, housing or reunite with their families. Incarceration is not productive for anyone, and it is costly to the entire community. If we can accomplish the same thing by keeping someone out of jail, we should strive for that. 

Utilize What Already Exists

When someone commits a crime, there are many more answers than simply calling the police and putting that person in jail. When we start to treat people like the complex individuals they are, we will realize that there is usually much more to a person and their circumstances than what we immediately see on the surface. Utilizing CIT, co-responder programs, and jail diversion programs will help take some of the pressure off of the police officers when it comes to mental health calls. As a result, some changes can be made. 

Innovative Software – Julota

In addition to community responder programs and diversion programs, we must utilize other programs and software that already exists. For example, Julota is a software system that enables communities and police officers to better address mental health issues, substance abuse, and emergency interventions. It allows officers to quickly see if the person they encounter is working with any community services, such as a counselor or substance abuse provider. It does this by easily linking community resources and the CAD system that police officers already use. 

Much of the information the police need would  show up on their screens before they arrive at the scene. Meaning that before they even encounter the individual, they will have better information and be alerted that the person is suffering from a mental health or substance abuse disorder. By having this information, police officers will know that they need to take a different approach. Additionally, Julota allows police officers to quickly check and see if space is available at a local mental health clinic or substance abuse center. If there is space available, the officers can alert the facility that they are on the way. Communication with the community partner is all done electronically. If we can find a way to truly help people instead of disrupting their freedom and their lives unnecessarily, we should. It would benefit everyone.

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