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Advocates, police department talk merits of mobile crisis team as funding decision looms

Who to call for a mental crisis as city leaders, mental health experts work toward end goal of separate response unit
Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 6:48 PM AKST|Updated: Nov. 23, 2021 at 1:52 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Mental health advocates and the Anchorage police and fire chiefs spoke with Anchorage Assembly members Monday afternoon about the merits and functions of the city’s mobile crisis team, as the assembly is set to vote on Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposed budget as soon as Tuesday night.

The Mobile Crisis Team, funded by Anchorage’s alcohol sales tax, began in July of this year as part of the Anchorage Fire Department. The team pairs a paramedic with a mental health clinician to respond to mental crisis calls, and check up on frequent users of the city’s emergency services.

It’s one part of a statewide effort to implement the Crisis Now model, which includes three components: a crisis call line, a mobile crisis team, and a 23-hour stabilization center.

Bronson’s proposed budget moves the team from the fire department to the Anchorage Police Department, and cuts its funding from more than $1.5 million to $750,000, part of which will go to contracts. Advocates for mental health have raised concerns about the result of moving a crisis team to the police department, and about the proposed funding amount in just its second year of existence.

Jason Lessard, executive director for National Alliance on Mental Illness - Anchorage, says the presence of a uniformed police officer can add tension to a situation with a person in crisis, regardless of the intent. He read from a position statement from CIT International, an organization dedicated to improving crisis response systems, which says, “the presence of law enforcement at a mental health crisis event implicitly defines the situation as a potentially dangerous and criminal matter.”

Not only having the potential of escalating a situation for people who’ve had past experience and trauma involving police, but the attention drawn by sirens, lights, and the presence of a gun and badge can negatively affect the person experiencing a crisis.

“If we can ensure that ... this is a behavioral health response to a health situation. Again, this is a health situation, this is not necessarily criminal,” Lessard said.

Lessard praised the Anchorage Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team, which has responded to mental health calls for the police department in Anchorage for more than 20 years, and is where the Mobile Crisis Team would be integrated. But responsibility for mental health crises should not fall to police officers, he said.

“We’re bringing the law enforcement perspective into these situations when it’s housed under APD,” Lessard said. “In my perspective, that may cause some issues.”

Lessard says part of the reason the CIT model was created was to prevent people in crisis from committing “suicide by cop.”

Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy said during Monday’s meeting that the police department’s goal in taking on the mobile crisis team is as a temporary placement until a more robust mental health first responder unit is developed.

“Our goal is to serve as a bridge to get us to where we have the full Crisis Now response in our community,” McCoy said. “and getting us there I think is a very important step to continuing to provide a service while that’s being built.”

McCoy shared that the police department already requires general officers to have at least 20 hours of crisis intervention training. Members of the Crisis Intervention Team have at least 40 hours and can be sent on request to a call involving mental health. Those are in addition to the department’s mobile intervention team and crisis negotiation team, which have extensive training and certifications in the field.

The chief shared data showing that once the department implemented a “mental health” tag for police calls for service with any mental health element, in addition to calls specifically for mental health or suicide, the real impact of those calls on police jumped. The internal flag was implemented in October of 2020, and APD’s calls for service with those three tags jumped from an average of 639 per month in 2020 overall, to 783 so far in 2021. Renee Oistad, a spokesperson for APD, says the internal flag allowed a more accurate view of the calls, rather than showing an increase in that time frame. Anchorage police officers responded to more than 1,000 mental health calls in seven of the 12 months since the tag was introduced.

McCoy says adding the fire department’s mobile crisis team capabilities to the police department could increase its response capabilities from one team to two or three. He also expects that the move will save the municipality $825,180.

Speaking to concerns about the influence of officers on a mental health call, “the uniform is something that’s entirely under our control,” McCoy said.

“If we wanted our CIT officers to be in plain clothes and operating in that environment with the social service specialist or clinicians, we could absolutely do that,” he said.

Lessard said he was encouraged by the suggestion that police officers could operate plainclothes officers for the mental health unit, and urged continuity of the program.

Mike Abbott, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which is working with Anchorage and other communities in Alaska on implementing Crisis Now, says Anchorage is making steps in the right direction to help solve mental and behavioral health issues, but emphasized that the Crisis Now model envisions a behavioral health response that is separate from both the fire and police departments.

“Right now in Alaska and in many other communities, emergency rooms and correctional facilities are often the locations where first responders deliver folks in psychiatric crisis, even if that is not necessarily the right place. It’s the only place that’s available,” Abbott told Alaska’s News Source in an interview late last week.

Removing the crisis team from those two functions, Abbott says, results in better outcomes for the people served.

“For the people experiencing these crises, they are able to get the treatment they need, either over the phone, on the spot through a mobile crisis team’s intervention, or through short-term service in one of these crisis stabilization facilities, and they are able to go back to their jobs, their families, school and their lives without the trauma associated with jail or an emergency room or something else,” he said.

On Monday, Abbott spoke again to the benefits of removing psychiatric crisis responders from law enforcement and medical responders’ plates, and lauded the freeing up of resources that also results in. In the short-term of where the city is headed, though, he had praise.

“I could not be prouder of a conversation that is discussing how we are going to implement a mobile response capability and not whether we’re going to do it,” Abbott said.

If you or someone you love needs mental health help or is contemplating suicide, there are places to reach out for help: The Alaska Care Line is 1 (877)266-4357, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1 (800) 273-8255.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information on the number of calls for service Anchorage Police respond to regarding mental health.

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