Mental health professionals – not police officers – may soon answer some 911 calls in Spokane


Spokane mental health professionals may soon be answering some 911 calls without a police officer by their side.

Police and behavioral health experts work through logistics so that clinicians respond to emergency calls for people in crisis without the accompaniment of an armed police officer.

Spokane Police Department leaders have embraced the change as a way to free up officers’ time to respond to other emergencies, while police reform advocates believe it will lead to better results for people who need help.

“This is one of those win-win scenarios for everyone,” Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl told The Spokesman-Review.

The main challenge that Spokane Police and Frontier Behavioral Health officials are working on is how to differentiate between calls that can be handled by mental health professionals alone and those that require police support.

The Mental Health Intervention Unit, as it is called, could probably handle a situation on its own if, for example, the person believed there were listening devices stuck in their walls.

“The types of calls we’re talking about are those where people are currently not violent, they don’t have a gun, and they’re not threatening to hurt themselves or anyone. They’re just going through a mental health crisis, ”said Jan Tokumoto, COO of Frontier Behavioral Health, who is collaborating on this effort.

Everyone involved agrees that careful thought and collaboration is required before launching the program.

“It takes a lot of planning and a lot of partnership with 911 and law enforcement,” Tokumoto said. “Before we get into something like that, we would have a discussion about what kind of calls you are currently receiving that you think could be handled by a mental health response unit.”

And it’s important that Frontier Behavioral Health staff can always count on the support of law enforcement.

“There must also be a caveat where, if for some reason we were all wrong, this mental health response unit would easily contact law enforcement for help if needed,” said Tokumoto.

The city has funding for this effort through the 2019 public safety tax approved by voters, according to Spokane City Council Chairman Breean Beggs, who has long supported the concept.

“We just need the police to say ‘yes we’ll hire them or hire them and here is the (funding request),’” Beggs said.

The city is already using the help of mental health professionals through its Behavioral Health Unit, which pairs agents with trained mental health professionals with the aim of directing people to and away from resources. of the criminal justice system.

Tokumoto said a mental health response unit would simply be an extension of this existing work.

“The co-advocate teams have absolutely brought us closer to how we would like to serve people with mental illness in our community when they are in a certain level of crisis,” Tokumoto said. “I think they’ve been very successful in diverting people away from incarceration, emergency departments, and inpatient psychiatric treatment because they’re there when that person is in crisis and they can provide viable resources and tangible. “

Co-facilitator units are already easing the burden on officers, and Meidl is eager to test the benefits of a fully mental health-focused response. During Meidl’s career in law enforcement, he said the quantity and scope of calls to which police respond “exploded.”

“Anything we can do to ease the pressure on the call load for law enforcement and potentially (respond) to those (respond) who are actually singularly focused on this aspect – singularly focused on health.” mental – you get a better response and you free up time, ”Meidl said.

Jac Archer, of Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR), said “very often it’s hard to see what the police add to a situation other than, frankly, escalation, when a mental health crisis occurs” .

People with mental health issues can sometimes be triggered by the mere presence of a police officer, Archer said.

In 2020, the Behavioral Health Unit responded to 434 suicide calls, according to figures collected by police.

The unit responded to a total of 361 calls in May alone, saving patrol units approximately 216 hours. Less than 1% of unit calls resulted in an arrest.

Mental health response unit organizers may look to other cities for advice.

Denver launched its Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) last June, pairing a doctor and clinician to answer calls without police. In the first six months of the program, he answered 748 calls. None resulted in an arrest.

The effort in Spokane is likely to start off small, with just a few advisers. There is no target date for its launch yet.

Hiring is unlikely to be easy, as Frontier Behavioral Health, like so many organizations in the COVID-hit economy, struggles to recruit new staff. But Tokumoto promised it wouldn’t deter the association.

“With something like that, you have to start small so you can fix the bugs and change them along the way until you get that solid response team,” Tokumoto said.

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