- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2021

Police departments in the Washington area are turning to mental health experts to help handle certain emergencies as they grapple with the role of law enforcement in the post-George Floyd era.

Unarmed teams of behavioral health experts in the District soon will be dispatched to certain 911 calls instead of police under a new pilot program.

“The sooner we can identify what a person needs — whether that is an ambulance, a doctor’s appointment, or in this case, a visit from a behavioral health expert, the sooner we can help them,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement last week.

Baltimore is taking a similar step next month with a pilot program that will divert some 911 calls to a crisis hotline staffed by mental health counselors. Meanwhile, Prince William County in Virginia has been testing a program since December in which co-responder units of police and behavioral health experts respond to certain mental health crisis calls.

The changes in the region’s police departments are part of a growing trend unfolding across America sparked by a national movement to reduce civilian-police violence since the death of George Floyd last year in Minnesota police custody.

Last week, the city of Brooklyn Center in Minnesota passed a resolution that mirrors Baltimore’s program in which certain 911 calls will be rerouted to a newly formed Community Response Department of medical and mental health professionals.

The decision came one month after a police officer fatally shot Daunte Wright in the city, a suburb of Minneapolis.

The new law is named after Wright and Kobe Dimock-Heisler, who was fatally shot by police in 2019. Police say they shot Dimock-Heisler, who had a mental illness and was on the autism spectrum, because he lunged at an officer with a knife.

“Brooklyn Center did not look to be in the national spotlight on these issues, but here we are,” Mayor Mike Elliott told WCCO-TV. “And given the tragic incidents that occurred here … we must respond with a commitment to do better, and today’s vote is part of that response.” 

The District’s six-month pilot program begins in June and is one of the 90 recommendations made by the city’s police reform commission last month.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department [MPD] told The Washington Times this week that the agency supports the program and it is “encouraged” by the work of those involved “to ensure that D.C. residents receive the most appropriate care and resources.”

The city’s 911 dispatchers received 23,394 calls for service last week, according to the Office of Unified Communications (OUC).

The office is training operators, identifying which situations should be handled by mental health experts, assessing the potential volume of calls, and reviewing the outcomes of past incidents.

Interim OUC Director Cleo Subido said the agency is “grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with [the Department of Behavioral Health] to create new pathways for management of the city’s 911 calls.”

“At the OUC, we recognize how critical it is to dispatch the most appropriate response to emergency incidents,” Ms. Subido said in a statement this week.

Baltimore’s program also starts in June. Mayor Brandon M. Scott said this month that it “will allow our police officers to spend more time focusing on violence.”

“Approximately 13,000 calls come into our 911 system each year for people in crisis,” Mr. Scott said during a press conference. “Baltimore is home to world-class medical institutions, and we have an opportunity to deliver premier clinical care and supportive services to residents experiencing behavioral health and substance use crises.”

The co-responder initiative in Prince William “has been quite successful so far,” according to First Sergeant Jonathan Perok.

Between January through March, the co-responder teams were sent to 240 calls and helped 25 people avoid criminal charges, he said.

County officials recently approved funds for the agency to add three police officers and three behavioral health clinicians to the co-responder teams in July.

“We strongly believe this program will remain in place for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Perok said in an email statement this week.

Virginia is also working on a statewide “mental health awareness response” dispatch system, and at least five regional mobile mental health crisis teams will be in place by the end of the year.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed off on the legislation to create the “Marcus Alert” system at the end of last year. It is named for Marcus-David Peters, a teacher who was fatally shot by Richmond police when he was undergoing a mental health crisis in 2018.

“Individuals in crisis must be treated with dignity and met by behavioral health professionals who are equipped to help them get the care they need,” Mr. Northam said during a bill-signing press conference.

The governor added that it “represents an important step forward in reforming a system that too often criminalizes mental illness.”

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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