Transitioning to 988: What Law Enforcement Crisis Teams Can Do To Prepare

With the activation of 988 – the Nationwide Suicide and Crisis Line – in July of this year, a new era in American mental health crisis response has arrived. Anyone in the U.S. can now call, chat, or text 988 and access resources and support during mental health, suicide, or substance use crisis. This includes law enforcement transitioning to 988 for mental health crisis.

988 serves as a bridge across the entire crisis care continuum, from call centers to mobile crisis response teams to crisis stabilization facilities. “This is truly a historic moment, which recognizes the importance of mental health and how critical it is to connect people in crisis with lifesaving support. It’s also a time for reimagining crisis response to ensure everyone in our country has access to mental health crisis services…” said AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) CEO Bob Gebbia. 

While the Federal Communications Commission has established regulations on how 988 should operate, states are primarily responsible for its implementation. The new three-digit number provides an opportunity for states and local communities to improve their response to people experiencing behavioral health crises.

Communities will need to develop an infrastructure plan in anticipation of increased calls, increase crisis intervention training, and integrate 911 and other emergency services with 988. Collaboration with law enforcement agencies will be vital to implementing the new system. This article will examine what law enforcement crisis teams can do to prepare for the transition to 988.

Increase Crisis Intervention Training for Law Enforcement

In the past 15 years, we have seen significant strides being made in training law enforcement officers to recognize signs of behavioral health crises and effectively de-escalating crisis situations. These efforts have led to improvements, such as providing mental health and crisis intervention training as part of law enforcement training standards.

Although most agencies have approximately 25% of officers trained in crisis intervention, some have prioritized having every officer CIT trained. States are implementing laws and guidelines to help in this critical arena.

The TBI (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) Law Enforcement Training Act was recently signed into law in Florida. Rep. Val Demings cosponsored the new law, which she explained as “a new police training program to help law enforcement and first responders better recognize and respond to people suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.” She stated: “I was proud to work with Congressman Pascrell and others to stand by our law enforcement officers and ensure that they have the training and resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

Establish Clear Dispatch Policies to Determine When Officers Should be Deployed

A complete transition to 988 in the public’s eye will take time, which means that 911 call centers will likely continue to be the default for many crisis calls. Therefore, clear dispatch policies should be established in collaboration with 988 planning committees to determine when officers will be deployed and how mobile crisis teams can call them for backup.

Effective communication can mean the difference between tragedy and successfully helping someone receive life-saving care and support during a crisis. Just as officers are trained in crisis intervention, so should call-takers and dispatchers receive enhanced training.

Call-takers are those at an emergency call center who receive calls for service. They are the first contact and make critical decisions about the appropriate response. 

Dispatchers are typically those who deploy law enforcement crisis teams. At times one person carries out both functions. Clear policies should be put in place for call-takers/dispatchers to recognize mental health calls and dispatch them to the appropriate team. 

Finding a robust community software platform is paramount to the success of law enforcement crisis teams. Julota is the first solution built to connect the “helper” community and is used by municipalities, counties, and states from coast to coast. Its cloud-based platform allows for standardized communications between call-takers/dispatchers and crisis teams. 

Julota’s powerful coding abilities mean that calls through 988 or 911 will be coded correctly as a crisis call, enabling law enforcement crisis teams to respond appropriately without delay. Teams will be able to track the calls on any device, see calls immediately, review notes from dispatchers, and respond quickly to the scene with adequate information. 

Ensure that Cross-Agency Partnerships are in Place to Prepare for Transitioning to 988

As communities assess their crisis response needs, ensuring that cross-agency partnerships are in place will be critical to the success of their law enforcement crisis team program. Determining the best fit for their community means including law enforcement, behavioral health providers, emergency medical staff, and social services in the decision-making process. 

The cross-system approach is often referred to as police-mental health collaborations (PMHC). These PMHCs build on the success of mental health training by using multiple types of response models such as Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), co-responders, and mobile crisis intervention teams.

Implementing one or more of these models provides a comprehensive approach to crisis response. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has created a PMHC toolkit to provide resources for law enforcement to access successful cross-agency partnerships. The toolkit contains essential elements that provide a framework for program design and implementation, which can be used to build a new PMHC program or improve an existing one. 

The toolkit contains a section entitled: Information Exchange and Confidentiality, which assists the PMHC program in developing procedures regarding the release and exchange of information among partners. The community’s planning committee should create protocols that allow the linking of diverse systems to share information appropriately.

The information should be shared to protect individuals’ confidentiality in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). Many PMHCs across the country have chosen Julota as their technology solution because it meets those requirements and much more. 

Julota’s compliance capabilities mean that the vital information collected and shared across partners is protected and secure. Its interoperability element connects all the various agency’s systems and allows sharing only to designated parties as determined by the entities involved. 

Bolster Relationships with Behavioral Health Providers

Since the 1980s, law enforcement agencies have collaborated with mental health professionals and advocates to design specialized responses to individuals with mental health issues. Typically, the crisis response models fall into two broad categories: co-responders and community responders.

The co-responder model involves pairing CIT-trained law enforcement officers and behavioral health specialists. The behavioral health professionals provide assistance at the scene, including assessment, consultation, and access to treatments and supports. 

With transitioning to 988, call volume will undoubtedly increase, requiring law enforcement to bolster their relationships with these behavioral health providers. The co-responder relationship requires a strong commitment from police officers and behavioral health specialists to provide on-scene care as well as ongoing and intensive case management. 

A successful relationship between law enforcement and behavioral health providers requires accurate, up-to-date information about the services that are available in the community. Though this can be a challenge, communities can look to places like Boulder County, Colorado, for some answers.

In conjunction with the OMNI Institute, they have created a complete directory and searchable Google map of all behavioral health care providers in the county. With Julota’s multi-faceted platform, this type of directory can be configured and made available to all agency partners. An example of their map can be accessed here

Conclusion: Transitioning to 988

The new 988 crisis line is being touted as the “911 for mental health.” It is part of a new era for comprehensive crisis services to ensure a robust and responsive crisis system that can provide direct, life-saving services to anyone in need. 

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) is working hard to assist law enforcement crisis teams in their preparation for transitioning to 988. Services include partner webinars to educate 988 messaging and communication and state and local partner meetings, roundtables, and interagency collaborations.

They have created a 988 Partner Toolkit to provide law enforcement crisis teams and partners with a clear understanding of what 988 is and how it will work. The toolkit includes vital messages which cover the basics of 988 and provide messaging and outreach guidelines for promoting 988.

These messages work in coordination with the 988 Messaging Framework that the National Action Alliance developed for Suicide Prevention and its messaging task force. The Messaging Framework assists community partners, including law enforcement, behavioral health providers, and others, in communicating effectively about 988.

Transitioning to 988 is a giant leap forward in crisis response and will transform crisis care in this country, but it will not happen overnight. Its success depends heavily on state and local support. 

The transformation will involve close collaboration between SAMHSA and hundreds of community partners. Law enforcement crisis teams must work closely with local behavioral health providers and other community entities to prepare for the transition to 988. Implementing the recommendations listed in this article will help to ensure their success.