Boston beefs up co-response program on mental crisis calls

Joint units of officers and social workers right now can be dispatched to any type of call, but that's going to change come September

By Sean Philip Cotter
Boston Herald

BOSTON — Acting Mayor Kim Janey is rolling out a plan to "amplify the role of mental health workers and reduce the role of police officers" in dealing with 911 calls for people in distress.

The program, funded with $1.75 million budgeted for the Health and Human Services Department, would boost the already-existing co-response efforts in Boston, where social workers have gone with cops on some calls for years.

"I am proud to launch a pilot program that reimagines how we respond to mental health calls," Janey said. Her administration touted the plan as a move to "amplify the role of mental health workers and reduce the role of police officers."

The plans, announced Thursday, effect a few different changes to the existing process.

Currently, co-response units are dispatched alongside police officers on a case-by-case basis, but the program will expand in September, and dispatchers handling any mental-health call that includes a safety risk to the responders will automatically look to assign both cops and, if available, a co-response unit. This change will apply to downtown, Charlestown and Roxbury.

The city added that joint units of a police officer and social worker right now can be dispatched to any type of call, but that's going to change come September to only focus on mental-health calls in an effort to better focus resources.

For calls dispatchers deem not to pose a safety risk to responders — Boston EMS Chief Jim Hooley gave the example of someone who's depressed — teams of emergency medical technicians and mental-health workers will be sent out without a police presence. This will apply citywide.

The city said 911 dispatchers fielded more than 10,000 mental-health calls in 2020. Though they came from every neighborhood, they were most frequent in Dorchester, Roxbury and the South End — areas that have generally high volumes of calls across the board.

The move won some plaudits from the Boston Police Patrolmen's Union, which said these moves seem "well considered," and that the BPPA looks forward to working on them more.

"Given the unpredictable nature of calls involving individuals suffering from mental illness, a comprehensive, multi-agency effort is undoubtedly in the best interests of public safety, those answering the calls and those in need of services," BPPA boss Larry Calderone said.

John Barros, the city's former economic development director who's one of the people running for mayor against Janey, quickly fired out a statement supporting the program — but not-so-subtly suggesting Janey ripped off his own plan, which he announced last week.

"I'm flattered Acting Mayor Kim Janey is impressed with my proposal," Barros' campaign said in a statement.

[NEXT: Police, hospitals and mentally ill subjects: A better way forward]

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