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911 Dispatchers Hinder New Mental Health Response Teams

Many police officers have expressed frustration about spending time handling mental-health calls for which they feel unequipped, rather than fighting crime. Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York have rolled out mental-health or crisis response teams in the past 16 months, but researchers have found that 911 dispatchers aren't categorizing mental health calls properly, hindering the effectiveness of theses programs, the Atlantic reports. Many cities have looked to CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), a program in Eugene, Or., that sends unarmed responders to deal with mental-health calls, drug issues, minor injuries, and the like, as a model for diverting calls and funds, from the police. The city of Durham, N.C., wanted to understand just how many 911 calls the city was getting that could be diverted to someone other than police. Officials asked the research organization RTI International to analyze one million calls for service over three years to assess how much work a mental-health unit would have. The results stunned them. RTI found that operators had categorized only one percent of the calls as mental-health-related at the time of dispatch.

The researchers concluded that the one percent figure was a substantial undercount of the mental-health calls reaching Durham 911. In too many cases, calls related to people in crisis were going unrecognized until police were already on the scene. This gap in the data is a major challenge to the enterprise of diverting calls from armed officers. For mental-health response units to respond to the right incidents, emergency dispatchers need to be able to decide what counts as a mental-health call, and they need to be able to do it from the incomplete information provided during a 911 call made in the heat of a crisis. Rsponders or co-responders can help only if emergency dispatchers know when to deploy them. If first responders don’t recognize that a call is mental-health-related until cops arrive, it’s too late.


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