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Mental health professionals – not police officers – could soon respond to some 911 calls in Spokane

Spokane Sheriff Deputy Dan Moman and Holly Keller, a clinician with Frontier Behavioral Health, partners in the Spokane County Co-Deploy Team, do a welfare check on a woman with mental health issues, July 5, 2019, in the Spokane Valley.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Sheriff Deputy Dan Moman and Holly Keller, a clinician with Frontier Behavioral Health, partners in the Spokane County Co-Deploy Team, do a welfare check on a woman with mental health issues, July 5, 2019, in the Spokane Valley. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Mental health professionals in Spokane could soon respond to certain 911 calls without a police officer at their side.

Police and behavioral health experts are working through the logistics of having clinicians answer 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 advocates for police reform believe it will lead to better outcomes for people in need of help.

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

The primary challenge Spokane Police and Frontier Behavioral Health officials are working through is how to delineate the difference between calls that can be handled by mental health professionals alone and those that require police support .

The Mental Health Response Unit, as it is being referred to, could likely handle a situation on its own if, for example, the person believed there were listening devices planted in their walls.

“The types of calls we’re talking about are where people are not currently violent, they do not have a weapon, and they’re not threatening to harm anyone or themselves. They just are experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Jan Tokumoto, chief operating officer of Frontier Behavioral Health, which is collaborating on the effort.

Everyone involved agrees that ample forethought and collaboration is necessary before launching the program.

“It takes a lot of planning and a lot of partnership with 911 and with law enforcement,” Tokumoto said. “Before we would enter into something like this, we would have a discussion about what are the type of calls you currently receive and you feel could be managed by a mental health response unit.”

And it’s important that Frontier Behavioral Health staff still be able to fall back on support from law enforcement.

“There also has to be the caveat where if for some reason we all got it wrong, that this mental health response unit would readily contact law enforcement for assistance if needed,” Tokumoto said.

The city has funding for the effort thanks to the 2019 public safety levy approved by voters, according to Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who has long supported the concept.

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

The city already uses the help of mental health professionals through its Behavioral Health Unit, which pairs officers with trained mental health professionals in an effort to direct people to resources and away from the criminal justice system.

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

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

The co-responder units are already easing the burden on officers, and Meidl is eager to test the benefits of a full mental health-focused response. Over the course of Meidl’s career in law enforcement, he said the quantity and scope of calls police respond to has “exploded.”

“Anything that we can do that will ease pressure on the call load for law enforcement and potentially have those (respond) who are actually singularly focused on that aspect – singularly focused on mental health – 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 difficult to see what police add to a situation other than, frankly, escalation, when there’s a mental health crisis happening.”

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 the police department.

The unit responded to 361 total calls in May alone, saving patrol units an estimated 216 hours. Less than 1% of the unit’s calls ended in an arrest.

Organizers of the mental health response unit can look to other cities for guidance.

Denver launched its Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) last June, pairing a medic and a clinician to respond to calls without police. In the program’s first six months, it responded to 748 calls. Not one ended in an arrest.

The effort in Spokane is likely to start small, with only a few counselors. There is not yet a target date for its launch.

Hiring will likely not be easy, as Frontier Behavioral Health, like so many organizations in the COVID-impacted economy, is having trouble bringing on new staff. But Tokumoto promised that would not deter the nonprofit.

“With something like this, you need to start small so you can work out the bugs and tweak it along the way until you get that solid response team,” Tokumoto said.

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