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Baltimore pilot program to divert some 911 calls away from police

The program will begin by focusing on people with suicidal ideations and without weapons before scaling up, officials said

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By Hallie Miller and Emily Opilo
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A pilot program run by the Baltimore City government and a behavioral health nonprofit organization will divert some 911 calls to social workers and clinicians and away from police and emergency medical services providers.

The citywide 911 Diversion Pilot, set to start in June, aims to connect callers with the most appropriate resources and responses for their needs. It will start small — focusing specifically on people with suicidal ideations and without weapons or plans to act on those thoughts — before scaling up.

Such calls account for about 10% of the 13,000 behavioral health-related calls that the city’s 911 operators field every year, said Sunny Schnitzer, Baltimore’s deputy mayor for public safety.

She said the call line will be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by trained staff from Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., a vendor contracted with the Behavioral Health System Baltimore, the city’s designated local behavioral health authority. The pilot program does not have a defined end date.

“It’s really about creating a system in which we can integrate different crisis response models to get callers to the best possible outcomes,” Schnitzer said. “We’re already starting to give some thoughts to what other call types can improve.”

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A diversionary call line represents one step into what Schnitzer and others in Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration have referred to as a holistic rethinking of public safety in Baltimore that seeks to address structural inequities and identify underlying causes of violence.

“This pilot is not about defunding police, but rather acknowledging that police departments cannot tackle violent crime, our fire department cannot tackle public health and mental emergencies — and everything else,” Scott said Friday during a news conference.

The pilot also comes as city leaders face pressure to stem the pace of killings in Baltimore. There have been 31 in the past 30 days, according to police data. In 2021, at least 109 people have been killed, most of them in shootings.

More than 300 people have been killed each year in Baltimore for the past five years, a statistic that’s cast a grim shadow over every mayoral administration that has pledged to curb the violence. For its size, Baltimore is one of the deadliest cities in America.

The alternative hotline, Schnitzer said, eventually will allow police to focus on violent crime, freeing officers from spending time on other calls.

“We want to do this right, and we want to do this effectively, but we don’t have luxury to wait,” she said.

A study published in 2015 by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with untreated mental illness were more likely to die during an interaction with police officers than those without mental illness. Some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have called for an overhaul of policing in America, and a shift from calling 911 for behavioral health and substance abuse matters.

Baltimore Police Major Martin Bartness said city officers are trained to de-escalate conflicts and avoid using force whenever possible. He said the department uses force “very infrequently” with people with mental health disorders.

Mental health advocates criticized the city’s system last year after police shot a man undergoing a behavioral health crisis. Police said he pulled out a gun.

Adrienne Breidenstine, vice president of policy and communications for Behavioral Health System Baltimore, said at the time that the shooting highlighted “a total failure of our two systems” and called for the integration of police and mental health services.

At the federal level, officials are adopting plans to establish 988 as a phone line for people in behavioral health crisis. The line will connect people starting next year to representatives from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who is preparing to reintroduce legislation in Congress that would create a federal grant program to fund alternatives to police departments for crisis-based emergency responses, said there are too many instances of police responding with violence to nonviolent 911 calls.

Van Hollen cited a case of a Rochester, New York, man who died in custody in 2020 after officers placed a hood over his head and held him face down for several minutes. Police were summoned because the man had been acting erratically after taking PCP.

“A one-size-fits-all response does not serve the public safety interest,” Van Hollen said. “You wouldn’t call a lawyer to deliver a baby, and we shouldn’t call upon our police to have to respond to all these other situations where they are not adequately trained.”

Crista Taylor, president and CEO of Behavioral Health System Baltimore, said city’s call line will build a crisis response infrastructure that cities like Baltimore could benefit from.

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“When you look at police and fire, hand-in-hand with that should behavioral health crisis response,” Taylor said. “We should be funding that as much as police and fire, and all three should be connected and working well together.”

Scott said the diversion pilot program will not cost the city any additional money beyond its existing contract with Behavioral Health System Baltimore. The organization, which receives state funding as well as grants, pays Baltimore Crisis Response $3.4 million annually to support call center operations and mobile crisis response teams, Breidenstine said.

Baltimore Crisis Response has about 170 employees who staff the hotline, 30 of who are available for mobile crisis response teams.

Asked what kind of safeguards are in place should a situation involving a diverted call become violent, Scott said there will be precautions taken, but he declined to disclose the city’s strategy.

“We cannot disclose internal safeguards and policies that are talking about public safety,” he said. “That’s stuff we have to keep internal.”

Taylor said people can connect with phone operators directly through the existing “Here 2 Help” phone line (410-433-5175) or via 911, though it’s preferable that people call the helpline directly for quicker response times.

Taylor said the crisis response team might opt to transfer a call out to the police or to emergency medical services providers, if it’s not equipped to handle it, or if it does not fall into the specified call types they are looking to prioritize. She said the organization would start with those calls to ensure it has the bandwidth and protocols in place before taking on more.

“The whole goal is, people don’t need to interact with police to get the care they need,” she said. “Our system has been turned upside down where we ask police to do things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Baltimore Crisis Response has received a growth in call volume during the coronavirus pandemic, she added, but has used its existing resources to respond.

“The system has been underfunded, and to build out the system now, that will shift how police spend their time,” she said.

Schnitzer said the pilot program will be evaluated by a multiagency quality assurance team that will meet daily. The city has also assigned a data fellow to track the progress of the program, she said, with the expectation that adaptations will be made.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the diversionary phone line complements his crime plan, which calls for officers to reserve about 40% of each work day for community networking and relationship building. He said the pilot program lays the foundation for a “burden reduction initiative” that will eventually foster better source building and help police improve their case clearance rate.

Harrison also said there’s broad support among officers and leadership for the new program.

The Baltimore Police Department does contain a small crisis response team. During high-risk or high-intensity calls, the team of two officers, a sergeant and a lieutenant, are paired with clinicians or social workers to respond jointly.

That program has been successful and will continue, Bartness said. He said the department also plans to give about 30% of its patrol staff crisis intervention training, a 40-hour course that will start rolling out this summer.

He called the 911 diversionary pilot program an “overdue and very welcome addition.”

“Police are doing too much,” said Bartness, a 24-year veteran of the force and the department’s commander of education and training. “We, as a profession, had to take on these responsibilities because of a lack of funding of the behavioral health system. Mental illness and substance use overwhelmingly don’t need police intervention.”

Bartness said Baltimore police have “come a long way” in the past five years in refraining from unwarranted force, especially after the city’s consent decree with the federal government took effect. But he said the helpline could help minimize officers’ workload as more types of calls are diverted to it.

“It allows police who are uniquely trained and equipped to respond to matters of public safety and disorder to respond to those issues,” he said. “There is a skill set from behavioral health professionals that police don’t have.”

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