Many big US cities now answer mental health crisis calls with civilian teams — not police

DENVER (AP) — Christian Glass He was a geology enthusiast, a painter and a young man suffering from a mental health crisis when he called 911 for help unlocking his car in a Colorado mountain town last year.

Convinced that supernatural beings were following him, he refused when sheriff’s deputies told him to get out of the car. Officers yelled, threatened and coaxed, body camera videos show. Glass prayed, “Dear God, please don’t let them break the window.”

They did, and the 22-year-old grabbed a small knife. He was then hit with bean rounds, stun gun charges and finally bullets that killed him and led to a charge of murder against one deputy and a charge of criminally negligent homicide against another.

As part of a $19 million settlement this spring, along with Glass’s parents, Clear Creek County in Colorado this month joined a growing list of U.S. communities that respond to nonviolent mental health crises with doctors and emergency physicians or paramedics instead of police.

The initiatives have spread rapidly in recent years, particularly among the nation’s largest cities.

Data compiled by The Associated Press shows that at least 14 of the 20 most populous US cities host or start such programs, sometimes called civilian, alternative or non-police response teams. They stretch from New York and Los Angeles to Columbus, Ohio and Houston and boast annual budgets that together topped $123 million in June, the AP found. Funding sources vary.

“If someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, law enforcement is not what they need,” said Tamara Lynn of the National De-Escalation Training Center, a private group that trains police to handle such situations.

Aggregated and comprehensive data on the effects of the programs do not yet exist. Their scope varies considerably.

In Denver, just an hour’s drive from where Glass was killed, a program called STAR answered 5,700 calls last year and is often cited as a national model. Its funding totaled $7 million as of 2021.

In New York, a more than $40 million-a-year program called B-HEARD answered about 3,500 calls last year, and mental health advocates criticize it as anemic.

Representatives from other cities were candid about the challenges — understaffing, acclimating 911 dispatchers to dispatching unarmed civilians and more — at a conference in Washington, D.C., this spring.

Still, officials in places including New York see the no-police squads as an important shift in how they address people in crisis.

“We truly believe that every B-HEARD response is just a better way for us, the city, to provide care to people,” said Laquisha Grant of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

Federal data is sketchy, but various studies and statistics bear this out the mentally ill constitute a substantial proportion of those killed by the police. Often, the dead are black people, although Glass was not.

The alternative approach dates back decades but gained new momentum from calls for sweeping police reform after the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In Denver, STAR responders arrive in a van filled with everything from medical equipment to blankets and Cheez-Its. In one recent case, they spent three hours with a newcomer from Denver who was living on the streets. The team helped him get a Colorado ID voucher, food and medicine and took him to a shelter.

“It’s really about meeting the needs of the community and making sure we’re sending the right experts so we can really solve the problem,” says Carleigh Sailon, a former STAR manager who now works elsewhere.

STAR answered 44 percent of calls deemed eligible last year, said Evan Thompkin, STAR program specialist.

A Stanford University study found that reports of minor crimes dropped by one-third and violent crimes remained steady in areas that STAR served in its earliest phase. During the program’s three years, police have never been called for backup for safety reasons, but they have helped direct traffic, Thompkin said.

New York plans to expand its two-year-old B-HEARD program citywide. Officials note that social workers and EMTs resolve about half of the calls by talking to people or taking them to social services or community health centers rather than hospitals.

Grant credits the program for “giving people more options and letting people know they can stay safe in their homes, in their communities, with connection to the right resources.” Officials say B-HEARD answered 53 percent of “eligible” calls in the last six months of 2022, according to the most recent data available

But those calls are relatively few. Last year, officers responded to about 2 percent of all mental health crisis calls citywide. Even within the program’s limited territory, it delivered 16% of such calls between July and December 2022.

Grant says the city is looking into whether more calls may qualify.

John Barrett, however, wanted to go to a hospital to check on some of his physical and mental health issues one day in June. He…

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