May 31, 2022 - News

Mental health counselors to soon respond to some Des Moines 911 calls

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Mental health counselors will respond to some of Des Moines' 911 calls instead of law enforcement officers, starting in July, police and advocates for people in crisis tell Axios.

Why it matters: The new approach aims to better allocate police resources, reduce arrests and improve access to mental health programs for people in need, Sgt. Lorna Garcia said.

Catch up fast: For years, Des Moines police have called its Mobile Crisis Mental Health Response Team (MCRT), in partnership with Broadlawns Medical Center, to provide mental health assessments at scenes.

  • The team helps divert some people from jail or from unnecessary hospital stays.

What's new: The team is being expanded to include Broadlawns mental health clinicians who may respond to 911 calls as an alternative to police.

  • The Crisis Advocacy Response Effort (CARE) could help resolve some cases with as little as a phone conversation and follow-up to keep situations from escalating, Garcia said.
  • DSM will pay just over $328,000 a year for the programs.

Of note: Response will remain unchanged for calls involving criminal allegations or medical emergencies.

The big picture: DSM's program is modeled after one adopted in Austin, Texas last year. It was developed after a 2018 audit concluded that people experiencing a mental health crisis in the city were at higher risk of having a negative interaction with officers.

  • Austin police's program reroutes non-emergency situations — including home burglaries that are no longer in progress — to alternative app or call systems.
  • Police in Asheville, North Carolina also began directing people to report many non-life-threatening incidents to an online system last year.

What they're saying: The teams will likely handle hundreds of responses a year, DawnMarie Hooker, a Broadlawns crisis manager, told Axios.

  • The program has the potential to be expanded to provide services in other metro areas, Hooker noted.
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