Police officers often serve as first responders to mental health and substance abuse crises even though they’re often poorly trained or professionally and emotionally unequipped to manage such incidents. The inefficient response by law enforcement staff has high costs and often results in poor outcomes.

Alternatives to Law Enforcement Responses to Mental Health & Substance Abuse Improves Outcomes & Reduces Crime

The evidence base is building showing that alternative “community responses” to 911 calls involving mental health or substance abuse reduces costs, improves outcomes and reduces overall crime.

For example, this new study entitled A community response approach to mental health and substance abuse crises reduced crime documents how a pilot in Denver that directed targeted 911 calls to health care responders instead of the police.

The authors found robust evidence that the program reduced crimes like trespassing, public disorder, and resisting arrest by 34%. The sharp reduction in targeted crimes reflects the fact that health-focused first responders are less likely to report individuals they serve as criminal offenders and the spillover benefits of the program (e.g., reducing crime during hours when the program was not in operation).

Another essay in Scientific American: Sending Health Care Workers instead of Cops Can Reduce Crime makes a compelling argument that non-police-centered strategies not only are better at reducing crime; they’re less expensive & don’t come with the negative lateral consequences associated with policing.

In part, that’s because law enforcement is poorly equipped to resolve mental health or substance abuse issues in the field and tend to default to transport to emergency departments and arrests, both of which are extremely expensive and not associated with good outcomes.

HBO has captured the San Antonio Police Department’s pioneering crisis intervention approach in an Emmy Award-winning documentary, and Vitalyst is pleased to be offering free virtual screenings.

Ernie, Joe, and Behavioral Health Crisis Best Practices

By region, the Zoom-based “Ernie & Joe Crisis Cops” events will span the month of June, starting with Maricopa County’s screening on June 3. The screenings are open to leaders and individuals from law enforcement, the fire service, emergency medical services, emergency dispatch, and behavioral health services. The abridged, 35-minute screening will be followed by a live panel Q&A.  

As communities reckon with the behavioral health impacts of the pandemic and more, the work modeled by Ernie and Joe in this documentary is more important than ever. All Arizonans are encouraged to view the full documentary via HBO, and our first responders are urged to click here to register today for their free regional screening events

Tempe Implementing an Innovative Approach

The City of Tempe recently funded a pilot project that uses this alternative approach by triaging calls in the dispatch area and sending more appropriate staff like social workers on certain calls. The project is being done in partnership with AzPHA member organization Solari Crisis & Human Services. Hopefully more city managers and councils will recognize this promising new model and begin reforming how they deal with 911 calls.

Tempe partners with Solari to divert some crisis calls from police