Baltimore to direct some 911 calls to mental health professionals

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Baltimore, Maryland, will launch a new program this summer to direct some emergency calls to mental and behavioral health professionals, Mayor Brandon Scott announced on Friday. The program, the mayor said, is intended to help "people in crisis" who call 911, and allow the police "to spend more time focusing on violence." 

"Approximately 13,000 calls come into our 9-1-1 system each year for people in crisis. 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," Scott said. "The citywide pilot my administration will launch this summer will allow our police officers to spend more time focusing on violence."

Approximately 13,000 calls come into our 9-1-1 system each year for people in crisis. This citywide 9-1-1 call diversion pilot program will launch this summer and allow our officers to spend more time focusing on violence.More about today's announcement: https://t.co/NhV7M2tdRX pic.twitter.com/qLZnpPpkA4

— Brandon M. Scott (@MayorBMScott) May 7, 2021

Starting in June, when Baltimore residents call 911, an operator will decide if an individual's requested assistance falls within two categories: "non-suicidal and alert" or "suicidal and alert." These two categories, the city said in a press release about the program, account for roughly 1,000 calls every year. 

If a call falls within these categories, the operator will then connect the individual to a trained mental health clinician at the Here2Help line, which is operated by Baltimore Crisis Response, Inc. Last year, the organization said its hotline staff answered more than 46,000 calls, nearly 2,700 of which were with people expressing suicidal thoughts. 

"Nearly 1 in 5 people in Baltimore suffer from a mental health issue, often with a substance use disorder," Baltimore Crisis Response says on its website. "Add a high poverty rate and a growing number of homeless, and the true Baltimore city crisis is obvious."

In a press conference announcing the program, Scott said that "defining what public safety and policing look like for a community is the most consequential decision that any local government can make." 

"I think it is very clear that the status quo for public safety in this city and across this country is not working. It didn't work yesterday and it's not working today and it won't work tomorrow. But this 911 diversion pilot program is an innovative step in the right direction." 

He also shut down any arguments that the program is a way to defund the police. 

"It's not about defunding police, but rather acknowledging that police departments cannot tackle violent crime, our fire department cannot tackle public health and emergencies, and everything else. That's what this is about," Scott said. "The Baltimore Police Department is not comprised of substance abuse, mental health or trauma counselors, and neither is our fire department."

Senator Chris Van Hollen, who has advocated for legislation that would provide a similar service, said the initiative is a way "to improve public safety." In October, Van Hollen introduced a bill that would allow mental and behavioral health professionals to respond to certain emergency situations instead of law enforcement. 

"We must ensure those experiencing behavioral health and substance use crisis situations get the help they need. Not every emergency call requires a police response," Van Hollen said. "Mayor Scott's new pilot program will ensure Baltimore residents are connected with the appropriate resources in emergency and non-emergency situations — and will allow our police to focus their efforts where they're actually needed." 

Similar efforts have been rolled out in other cities, including in Oakland, California and Eugene, Oregon.

In November, New York City announced that mental health professionals and crisis workers would be the default responders to mental health emergencies in "high-need communities" that have been "underserved for far too long."  The program, which launched in February, is being debuted in Harlem, according to CBS New York

In Denver, Colorado, a six-month pilot program last year replaced police officers with health care workers on mental health and substance abuse calls. The workers received hundreds of calls, but no arrests were ever made in the incidents. The city's police chief told CBS News in February that the program "saves lives." 

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