Local law enforcement agencies are now relying on mental health professionals to manage mental health calls as opposed to officers.
As of this month, people calling 911 with a mental health crisis in Flagstaff and Coconino County will be forwarded to the Crisis Response Network. Crisis Response Network is a non-profit that employs trained mental health specialists who can get people to the services they need, all over the phone. If the caller needs in-person care, the Crisis Response Network will dispatch non-profit Terros Health, a mobile team of mental health professionals.
The policy change will free up dispatchers, police officers and sheriff's deputies to focus on more criminal and traffic violations. Officers will only be called in cases where people are at risk for injury or laws are being broken.
Officers and dispatchers are given training in mental health, but are by no means professionals in the mental health field. Katie Brandis, dispatch manager for the Flagstaff Police Department and the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, said in the new process, dispatchers will simply ask the caller if they would like to speak with a crisis counselor, and then forward the caller to the network.
"It's a big change for us, but it's going to be a good change," Brandis said.
The change comes as Flagstaff City Council considers ways to better respond to mental health and substance abuse calls in the city. Mental health calls include people reaching out for help because of sadness, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
Flagstaff police estimate that about 2,600 of their 43,401 calls in 2019 were mental health calls. At a Flagstaff City Council meeting, the Flagstaff police and fire departments expressed a belief that their agencies were not intended to be mental health crisis responders.
Vice mayor Adam Shimoni said sometimes what people need is someone with the time to listen and provide individual care for the person in need.
"When someone is going through a mental health crisis, having the right resource show up to support you is important; not law enforcement with a gun and a badge — bless their hearts, they mean well — sometimes you need a mental health specialist," Shimoni said.
Taxpayers might be happy to know that this change hasn't led to any increases in taxes or a shift in budgets for the department at this time. Arizona already pays Crisis Response Network and Terros Health with state funds to work in northern Arizona as a part of its state-mandated 24/7 mental health crisis services.
This policy change had been discussed as an aspirational dream for some time before the change actually occurred this month, Shimoni said. He helped work on bringing the partners to the table, saying he and others were spurred into action by recent police protests in light of the death of George Floyd.
He said there is still more work to be done to get people the help they need, but thought this was a great step forward for the community as the city council continues to work on further action.
"A lot of people don't know about Terros, and don't know about the Crisis Response Network. By streamlining [them] into 911 dispatch call responses, that allows for folks who didn't know about these community resources to benefit from those resources when it's appropriate," Shimoni said. "That's huge."
Matthew Moody, manager of Crisis Response Network's contact center operations, described the network's services as the air traffic control for crisis mental health services. Their call center has a staff with anywhere from five to 25 people that can activate mobile teams for in-person responses, listen to the callers, and direct them to services in the community.
This won't be the first time Crisis Response Network will offer a service like this for a police department. This policy change was modeled off of a running partnership Crisis Response Network has with the Mesa Police Department that has been in place for years.
"When someone is suicidal or anxious, they don't need an officer to come out. Get someone to a crisis specialist who has a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field and a couple of years of experience in mental health," Moody said. "That is training a 911 dispatcher isn't going to have."
The crisis specialists can connect people to services like financial assistance in the community, refer people to psychiatric facilities, and collaborate with other providers.
"The most important thing is there is a lot of room here ... for people having mental health issues to get diverted over to the crisis system, away from the 911 system," Moody said.
Shimoni said it's unclear exactly how many calls will be fully diverted away from the department. Officers will likely still be called alongside Terros for mental health calls that include drugs or dangerous or criminal situations.
Across the state, the network receives 20,000 to 25,000 calls every month. Moody said the network's call center successfully resolves about 70% of their calls, and dispatches teams like Terros on the remaining 30%.
Moody explained that the pandemic has changed their call volume across the state from 2019 to 2020. In 2020, the network has seen a 30% increase in calls where depression is the primary concern, a 23.7% increase in calls about anxiety, and a 20% increase in calls about domestic violence.
Bryan Gest, director of Terros Health's Northern Arizona Crisis Services, said Terros has been working in Arizona for 50 years, and in northern Arizona for five years.
During the past year, Terros was dispatched 1,642 times in Coconino County. Terros expects its call volume to increase after the change.
Before this policy change, Gest explained that officers would be sent to the scene of mental health calls, and then would have to think to call Terros in order for them to respond. He was happy that now Terros can be looped into the crisis situation as soon as it's needed.
In 2019, only 339 of Terros' total calls were at the request of law enforcement, while the department managed a few thousand mental health calls.
"Mental health professionals come into the call asking 'how can we help this individual?'" Gest said. "We really focus on that, being able to sort of spend time and have discussion, express empathy and use the resources and support we have that are unique to crisis responders, that police don't really have the ability to do, as well as connecting people to ongoing resources.
"We recognize that someone is having a crisis today, we might be able to deescalate today," Gest added. "But if nothing else really changes, the person might go into a crisis again soon."
Out of its total calls, Terros is able to stabilize the caller 75% of the time. Gest said the goal is to ensure that their clients do not have to go to a hospital or psychological crisis facility and instead stay at home.
Terros has an average response time of 20 minutes, which includes response times when teams are immediately available, and when available staff are already on other calls.
All those involved with the policy wanted to ensure people understood that these services are available before things get to a critical point, and that people should reach out to help when they're feeling anxious, sad or depressed because of life's challenges.
"It doesn't have to be to the point where someone is on the verge of suicide," Gest said. "We really really encourage people to utilize the crisis line and other crisis services before it gets to point where someone is feeling at risk of suicide. The crisis system is there for everybody at any time."