Citizen Programs Have Positive Impact for Crisis Calls, Resulting in Fewer Arrests and Hospitalizations for Mental Health Crisis Calls
by David M. Reutter
Several police departments have turned to trained citizens to respond to crisis calls. The results have been positive, as there have been fewer arrests and hospitalizations in these jurisdictions.
The St. Petersburg, Florida, Police Department in 2020 decided not to hire more officers and instead diverted that money into a new initiative. It partnered with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services. The partnership in February 2021 launched the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (“CALL”), which responds to 911 calls related to mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, and neighbor disputes. In the first year, CALL’s 12 navigators responded to over 4,300 calls and diverted more than 1,200 potential hospitalizations.
Other cities such as Denver, Rochester, Portland, and Olympia have rolled out similar pilot programs with success. What makes CALL-type programs different is that their navigators are trained to diffuse situations. Police, on the other hand, can cause distress when they arrive armed and in uniform, thereby escalating the situation.
“A lot of people end up with criminal charges because they’re in a mental health crisis,” said CALL Assistant Program Director Demetrius Williams. “A call for help turns into battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest, or aggravated assault.” In some cases, the distressed person was severely injured or killed while police were trying to restrain them.
“Law enforcement officers aren’t trained to handle mental health or substance abuse or things of that nature,” said Heather Loychick, a CALL navigator.
In her previous job as a mental health technician at a St. Petersburg psychiatric hospital, Loychick regularly saw police bring in a person under the Baker Act, which permits involuntary commitment of a person into a mental health treatment center for up to 72 hours. Loychick said she often saw the same faces over and over. She sometimes thought, “there’s no way this person should be here. There had to have been something somebody could have done on the front end to prevent them from being here.”
CALL navigator Nina Candongo relates a story about Eve, who called 911 about ten times in one day and dozens of times in the months prior. The first time Nina met Eve, she had driven her car through her family’s garage door because she thought she was being chased. Nina worked to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist and offered to accompany Eve and her family to the appointment.
Together, they created a plan that included Eve taking her medication every morning in front of her mother. Nina followed up with Eve over the next few weeks. “I told her to call me instead of 911, and she hasn’t called me in three weeks,” said Nina. “That’s a good thing because it means she’s been taking her medication.”
Williams seeks people from varied backgrounds, and he says experience in mental health or social work is not a requisite for becoming a navigator. He notes that one former navigator worked at Pizza Hut while a current navigator previously worked as a sheriff’s deputy.
“Just because you didn’t have a background doesn’t mean you can’t be trained, and we invest so much time and energy into training and developing our staff,” Williams said, explaining that he prefers navigators with limited experience. “The system is rough, and we all get very frustrated … and so, by having a few people who don’t have that underlying frustration, we get fresh eyes, fresh perspectives.”
The Crisis Response Unit (“CRU”) in Olympia, Washington, launched in 2019. It was modeled after the first civilian crisis response unit — the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Oregon, that was founded three decades earlier. CRU’s program responds to 2,450 calls per year.
Aana Sundling related a small win in helping a man who was panicking because he was paranoid and scared. Once she walked him to his vehicle, he was fine. “The fact that I could help [him] get to [his] car, that’s a good moment. It’s a small win,” she said. “I need to remember it though, because the next 20 losses are going to take me down a notch.”
Williams has his own definition of victory. “A small win for me is calling us instead of calling the police,” he said. “They’re utilizing us as a resource and knowing that we can try to help them meet their needs, to keep them safe, to keep them out of jail. It’s building trust and rapport.”
These type of citizen programs have something else the police can’t offer: time and compassion. “We have the ability to spend time — days, months even, if we need — to help [an] individual,” said Tianna Audet, CALL’s program director. “More police departments … are picking up on this, and they’re starting to use different models. And, they’re doing that for a reason, right? They’re doing it because it’s needed.”
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