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Baltimore pilot program aims to divert some 911 calls for behavioral health from police

Mayor Brandon Scott announcing the the city's first 911 Diversion Pilot which will divert some 911 calls to social workers and other medical care workers.

With goals of providing better help for people experiencing mental health crises in Baltimore and freeing up more time for police officers to tackle crime and build connections in the community, the city and a nonprofit organization will soon send some 911 calls to social workers and clinicians.

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 ideation and without weapons or plans to act on those thoughts — before scaling up.

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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.

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“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.

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.

Maryam Sodeyi, a crisis counselor at the Baltimore Crisis Response center in West Baltimore, fields calls on Friday, May 7, 2021.
Maryam Sodeyi, a crisis counselor at the Baltimore Crisis Response center in West Baltimore, fields calls on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

“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.

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.

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A national 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, including a shift from calling 911 for behavioral health and substance abuse matters.

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.

Baltimore Police Maj. Martin Bartness, the department’s commander of education and training, said city officers are taught to de-escalate conflicts and avoid using force whenever possible. He said the department uses force “very infrequently” with people with mental health disorders.

Tenea Reddick, left, director of Baltimore City’s 911 emergency call center, and Mayor Brandon Scott, center, and Senator Chris Van Hollen, right, announce the city’s new 911 diversion call system for behavioral health emergencies
Tenea Reddick, left, director of Baltimore City’s 911 emergency call center, and Mayor Brandon Scott, center, and Senator Chris Van Hollen, right, announce the city’s new 911 diversion call system for behavioral health emergencies (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

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.

“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,” Van Hollen said.

Baltimore County recently launched a one-year 911 diversion pilot program. It expands the Baltimore County Police Department’s mobile crisis teams and created a clinician program at the county’s 911 dispatch center.

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.

“We should be funding [behavioral health] as much as police and fire, and all three should be connected and working well together,” she said.

Scott said the pilot program will not cost the city any 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 whom are available for mobile crisis response teams.

Maryam Sodeyi, right, a crisis counselor at the Baltimore Crisis Response center in West Baltimore, fields calls along with other coworkers on Friday, May 7, 2021.
Maryam Sodeyi, right, a crisis counselor at the Baltimore Crisis Response center in West Baltimore, fields calls along with other coworkers on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

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.

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.

Schnitzer said the pilot program will be evaluated by a multiagency quality assurance team that will meet daily. The city also assigned a data fellow to track the program’sprogress 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 networking and relationship building. He said the pilot program lays the foundation for a “burden reduction initiative” that eventually will foster better source building and help police clear more cases.

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.

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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.

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Bartness, a 24-year veteran of the force, called the 911 diversionary pilot program an “overdue and very welcome addition.”

“Police are doing too much,” he said. “Mental illness and substance use overwhelmingly don’t need police intervention.”

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.

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