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Baltimore metro region receives $45 million in funding to improve crisis response services

Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a press conference earlier this year on the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp as he experienced a behavioral crisis. A new program is designed to help communities better respond to such situations.
Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a press conference earlier this year on the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp as he experienced a behavioral crisis. A new program is designed to help communities better respond to such situations. (Phil Davis)

Officials throughout the Baltimore metropolitan region unveiled a new partnership Monday that they said will create a better, safer way to intervene and aid people experiencing mental health and behavioral issues.

The $45 million, state-funded project will support a multi-jurisdictional partnership of health officials, hospitals and local agencies to make crisis responses less dangerous, supporters said.

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The new Greater Baltimore Regional Integrated Crisis System, or GBRICS, would create a 24/7 regional hotline for real-time care and coordination across the participating municipalities, the group said in a release and at a Monday news conference. That would allow family members of people experiencing mental health crises to call a hotline instead of the 911 police emergency number, officials said.

At a time when mental health advocates have called on jurisdictions to stop or limit police from responding to certain behavioral health crises, officials from Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties along with Baltimore city said the partnership is a step in the right direction.

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Baltimore City Council President and Mayor-Elect Brandon Scott said the partnership will focus on reducing the number of interactions police have with people experiencing behavioral crises “while actually allowing professionals in those fields to deal with issues that we know have long gone ignored in our city and in our region.”

The funding was approved at a meeting Thursday of the state’s Health Services Cost Review Commission.

In a release, GBRICS wrote that it will prioritize setting up a 24-hour, 7-day crisis hotline and mobile crisis response teams in each of the participating jurisdictions.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said the partnership “comes at a pivotal point for health and wellness for our region” as he and others pointed to how social isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic can exacerbate mental health issues.

Police in Baltimore city and county have been criticized by activists and others over two shootings in the past year involving 911 calls for people reportedly experiencing behavioral health crises.

In March, a group of Baltimore County advocates called the fatal shooting of Eric Sopp in November 2019 by a county police officer “incredibly unacceptable” after it was revealed Sopp’s mother had called 911 worried her 48-year-old son could commit suicide.

In July, Baltimore’s nonprofit mental health agency Behavioral Health System Baltimore called the shooting of Ricky Walker Jr. “a total failure” of the current 911 call system for the handling of Walker’s behavioral health crises. Walker was shot July 1 by a police officer who was responding to a call for a behavioral crisis but was not accompanied by any staff from the city’s 24-hour, 7-day crisis response team.

While officials stressed the regional partnership is not a replacement to calling 911 for all behavioral crises, they emphasized that their goal was to create a well-known, well-resourced system of treatment and referral that metro residents can turn to instead of police in times of personal crisis.

Behavioral Health System Baltimore wrote that in addition to the hotline and crisis response improvements, the funding also will go toward supporting walk-in and virtual health services as well as create a council “to support accountability and sustainability of the initiative.”

Gale Claus — a Howard County resident with a 23-year-old son who’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD among other mental illnesses — said her son has been hospitalized more than 20 times over the past six years and has struggled to be placed at a proper behavioral health facility due to overcrowding.

With officials from the counties saying they will look to support outpatient providers to increase access to various mental health treatment services, Claus said “having a system of expanded services in the community that will provide the right kind of care for individuals and families ... sounds like a remarkable leap forward for everyone.”

She added that she’s regularly had to call police officers to her home to help handle her son when he’s having an episode, but that it comes with a known consequence.

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“Although the officers are trained to deal with mental health crisis situations, plastic handcuffs are still handcuffs, especially to young siblings,” Claus said.

In Baltimore city, calls to the city’s crisis hotline have doubled since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, as officials said they were treating alarmingly high levels of depression and anxiety.

The regional hotline will help local jurisdictions link residents in crisis with various health services. The goal is to partner with local health providers and hospitals to provide a larger scope of comprehensive services that are easily accessible through a centralized hub.

“With this system, you’ll have a hotline number to call at any time, day or night, for help,” Carroll County Commissioner Dennis Frazier said. “A mobile crisis team can be dispatched to help you no matter where you are."

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