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Baltimore to send some 911 calls to counselors; police reform advocates seek further, community-connected steps

Police reform advocates called Monday for a more community-centric approach to diverting crisis calls from law enforcement during a roundtable discussion held by U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

The session, which included Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, came as Van Hollen prepares to reintroduce legislation in Congress that would create a federal grant program to fund alternatives to police departments for crisis-based emergency responses.

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Scott, a Democrat like Van Hollen, is developing a city pilot program that would direct some 911 calls to behavioral health specialists instead of officers. The program, which the mayor announced last month in his State of the City address, is due to begin by early June on a limited basis.

Officials have yet to release most details, but the head of a nonprofit group partnering with the city discussed the start of the program during the virtual roundtable.

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Edgar Wiggins, executive director of Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., said callers who are suicidal but do not have a weapon and haven’t taken any action to harm anyone, would be included in the pilot. Such calls would be transitioned to the organization’s hotline, he said, where callers could talk to a counselor to determine what kind of services may be needed.

Wiggins said 911 operators and police dispatchers are being trained on the types of calls that will be recommended for diversion. Based on the program’s results, officials plan to expand the number and types of calls that can be routed to counselors.

“People call 911 because there’s a problem,” Wiggins said. “What they don’t understand is when you call 911, you’re going to get a law enforcement response, even if it’s not a law enforcement problem.”

Scott declined during the meeting to answer questions on how long the pilot will run, whether the entire city will be covered during the first phase and what types of calls may be diverted. He said answers will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

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Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said during the discussion that it’s imperative that the city and others looking to reform police invest in community alternatives that are controlled by Black people.

Otherwise, “what happens at the end is you have a different version of the status quo. We’re investing in a different version of what we have now,” Jackson said.

The Rev. Kobi Little, president of Baltimore City NAACP, called funding more mobile crisis units to respond to behavioral health situations. Baltimore should have as many units as it does police cars, if not more, Little said.

“Every time a police car is called out to a mental health crisis situation, to an addiction crisis, we increase the chances someone will be killed or incarcerated,” Little said. “If you only have two (crisis units) and you have five crises, that means three people are going to jail instead of getting the help they need.”

Ashiah Parker, CEO of the No Boundaries Coalition, urged Van Hollen and Scott to make early contact with the communities they serve to get them involved on the front end of programs and legislation. Parker said the goal is to build a bond “where we love the brothers and sisters — regardless of what they’re doing in the community — enough to not call the police on them.”

Parker cited testimony from a shop employee during the recent trial of ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd. A clerk who alerted a store manager to a counterfeit bill used by Floyd told the court that, given Floyd’s death, he felt guilty that police were called.

“The whole thing had happened over a counterfeit $20 bill, which wasn’t worth his life,” Parker said. “If we have pacts and we have agreements in our community about when we’re not going to call the police ... we can eliminate some of those interactions in the community.”

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