Cincinnati wants to change who responds to mental health-related 911 calls
Cincinnati officials are proposing a new team to respond to emergency calls related to mental health. The Alternative Response to Crisis program, or ARC, is designed to avoid police responding to situations like when someone is homeless, suicidal or panhandling.
The team would have one behavioral health clinician from the Cincinnati Health Department and one paramedic from the Fire Department.
"They'll be responding in a typical van wearing street clothes, interacting with the community and connecting people to the services that they need," said Bill Vedra, director of the Emergency Communications Center. "The team will have basic necessities on hand to address immediate needs like first aid supplies, water, a sweatshirt, a snack. They will engage and find out what that person needs beyond that, such as a referral to a provider or transportation to a safe place."
Vedra says any time a weapon might be present or someone is the victim of a crime, the police would respond alongside the alternative team. The team would be in contact with ECC police dispatchers and could call for police support any time.
"I think we find that in many situations, people escalate because of their feelings about police and their past experiences in the criminal justice system," Vedra said. "We get many 911 calls that are simply about the fact that someone's homeless in a space that someone doesn't want them to be."
Interim Police Chief Theresa Theetge says the safety of citizens is still the top priority.
"However, that safety may come in many different forms; not every form is appropriate for a police response," Theetge said. "The Alternative Response to Crisis is a step in that direction: free up police resources while still making sure the citizens' needs are met."
Iris Roley is a consultant for the city on the Collaborative Agreement, and was instrumental in negotiating the agreement 20 years ago.
"This pilot program will help us understand that any response program that takes police out of situations for which they are not the best responder is great. It reduces chances of unintended violence to citizens and to officers."
The proposal is for a six-month pilot program costing about $178,000. The Cincinnati Health Department has already been awarded a $20,000 grant from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
Mayor Aftab Pureval is proposing the remaining cost come from the next city budget, which Council has final say on. The fiscal year 2023 budget must be approved by the end of June; if approved by Council, the ARC program would begin in July.
Pureval says he's confident the program will have the support of Council.
The pilot would begin at 40 hours a week, likely targeted around times when the most calls for service related to mental health are received. The pilot would eventually expand to 60 hours a week.
Pureval says after the six month pilot is complete, it will pause at least temporarily to allow officials to analyze its effectiveness. Officials hope to make the program permanent soon after.
The police department currently partners with the UC Mobile Crisis Team to connect officers with social workers. Sometimes a social worker will video call with officers, and sometimes they respond in person. That partnership would continue separately from the ARC pilot.
The ECC is also working with Mental Health America to train 911 call-takers with the same Crisis Intervention Team training that first responders receive. Vedra says by the end of the year, all 911 staff will be CIT certified.