Apr 18, 2023 - News

Counselors have replaced police in hundreds of 911 responses

Illustration of a phone with the wire in the shape of a heart.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Mental health professionals have replaced police in emergency responses more than 800 times since the city of Des Moines started a special dispatch service in July, according to data obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: People experiencing a mental health crisis are getting better care and being arrested less frequently.

  • The system also allows DMPD to focus officer time on other emergencies.

Catch up fast: DMPD has worked in partnership with Broadlawns Medical Center for years to provide mental health assessments at police response scenes via a Mobile Crisis Mental Health Response Team (MCRT).

  • The team expanded in July to include mental health clinicians who could respond to 911 calls as an alternative to police, a service known as the Crisis Advocacy Response Effort (CARE).
  • CARE resolves some cases with as little as a phone conversation and follow-up to keep situations from escalating.

By the numbers: The CARE unit responded to 805 calls through March.

  • And nearly 400 other situations were handled via dispatch and follow-up calls rather than by officer responses.

What they're saying: The response needs of someone having a mental health crisis are generally far different than someone with criminal intent, Sgt. Lorna Garcia tells Axios.

  • Dispatchers and police are increasingly being trained to recognize the differences and rely on the mental health teams in situations when public safety or human life is not in imminent danger, Garcia says.

Zoom in: Cumulatively, the mental health teams respond to more than 400 calls each month with fewer than five ending in arrests, Garcia says.

  • That's because the counselors help diagnose things like psychosis and can offer health care as an alternative to being booked on charges like trespassing.

Of note: DSM's program is modeled after one in Austin, Texas.

  • DSM pays Broadlawns almost $328,500 annually for the MCRT and CARE services and its current agreement continues through June 2026.

What's next: Garcia predicts CARE responses will escalate in coming months as dispatchers become more familiar with the team and its capabilities.

  • CARE's expansion to metro areas is possible in coming years, she adds.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Des Moines.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Des Moines stories

No stories could be found

Des Moinespostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Des Moines.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more