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Boston seeking better ways to respond to mental health calls

August 5, 2021 GMT

BOSTON (AP) — Boston is trying to come up with better ways to aid individuals experiencing an emergency mental health crisis in part by reducing the role of police officers in responding to some 911 calls.

Proposed changes include efforts to dispatch teams of paramedics and behavioral health practitioners — a change that aims to take mental health crisis calls out of the hands of uniformed and armed officers.

Under one of the models outlined by acting Mayor Kim Janey on Thursday, the city is hoping to improve and expand dedicated teams of police officers and mental health workers who respond together to 911 calls reporting a mental health crisis that also includes a possible public safety risk.

Currently the decision to dispatch a co-response team takes place on a case-by-case basis, according to Janey. The new initiative, beginning in September, seeks to standardize the process. Dispatchers will automatically ask if a co-response team is available to respond to mental health calls that also pose a possible safety risk.

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Co-response cars with a police officer and mental health worker can currently also be asked to respond to any 911 call.

The new program calls for dedicated co-response cars which will only be dispatched to 911 calls that are likely to have a mental health issue. The new program will begin in October in the city’s Downtown, Charlestown and Roxbury neighborhoods.

Janey also outlined two other models.

For 911 calls where there’s a mental health concern but no perceived safety risk, the city will send out teams of just emergency medical technicians and mental health workers to respond.

A third model still in the development stage calls for a mental health response that is led by trained community members who may have lived experience with mental illness and with the communities they’re serving.

The changes are being funded with $1.75 million from the city’s Health and Human Services budget.

“I am proud to launch a pilot program that reimagines how we respond to mental health calls,” Janey said in a written statement. “These pilot investments will connect residents — and their families — with the care they need as we bring more safety, justice, and healing to Boston neighborhoods.”

In Boston, more than 10,000 mental health calls were placed to 911 in 2020, according to the mayor’s office.

Last year’s data showed the highest call volumes in the Dorchester, Roxbury, and South End neighborhoods.

The effort to reinvent policing after the death of George Floyd has taken on a new urgency nationwide including more scrutiny of how police respond to emergency calls about individuals suffering from a mental health or drug crisis — encounters that can sometimes have tragic results.