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911 Mental Health Referrals Have 'Failed To Live Up To Their Potential'

Dispatchers at the 911 center in Mesa, Ariz., have three levers to pull: fire/medical, police or mental health. The last one was adopted by dozens of police departments around the U.S., aimed at avoiding violent confrontations between police officers and the mentally ill. “No hose, no gun,” said Mayor John Giles. “Just somebody with a clipboard and an argyle sweater who wants to ask how your day is going.” The new teams are designed to help people in distress who pose little if any threat to others. In practice, these teams have struggled to make much of a dent in what remains a chronic problem in policing, reports the Wall Street Journal.


Out of 250,000 total 911 calls last year in Mesa, dispatchers went with nonpolice mental-health units 3,500 times. Getting clinicians to the right place at the right time is proving difficult. Cities often don’t have enough of them to make a difference, blaming funding shortfalls. Knowing when to send clinicians involves a large degree of guesswork. Dispatchers often err on the side of sending police, particularly when details of 911 calls are sketchy. “Unfortunately with only one team, sometimes it means that we’re not available,” said Roger Astin, a San Antonio police officer in a three-member mobile team that also includes a paramedic and a mental-health clinician. There is scant comprehensive data on police killings of people with mental-health issues. The available numbers suggest a continuing overreliance on law enforcement, a finding backed up by local officials and behavioral experts. Every year since 2015, police in the U.S. have killed between 200 and 300 people who showed signs of mental illness, according to the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence. “These programs have failed to live up to their potential,” said Rebecca Neusteter of the University of Chicago Health Lab and lead investigator of Transform911, an initiative to rethink the nation’s 911 model. She cited inadequate and inaccurate call coding that can leave 911 operators without enough information to send the best response, as well as resource shortages.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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