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City To Launch Pilot Program To Divert Behavioral Health 911 Calls Away From Police

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Mayor Brandon Scott speaks about Baltimore's new 911 diversion program at a Friday news conference.

Baltimore City will launch a pilot program to divert some 911 calls for to social workers and mental health clinicians and away from police. Beginning in June, emergency line operators will connect those experiencing suicidal ideation to trained behavioral health specialists.

Mayor Brandon Scott said Friday the pilot is not about defunding the Baltimore Police Department, but connecting 911 callers to the most appropriate resources for their crises and acknowledging that BPD officers are not substance abuse, mental health or trauma counselors. City 911 services receive more than 13,000 calls related to behavioral health each year.

“Imagine how much harder your job would be if you receive over 1,000 calls a month to attend to matters that you are not equipped to handle, calls to focus on fixing situations that you are not trained to fix,” the Democrat said at a news conference.

The pilot is also part of the Scott administration’s effort to reduce crime by addressing underlying causes of violence, such as substance abuse and trauma, rather than allocating resources solely to police spending and punitive measures.

Baltimore’s public safety status quo is not working, Scott said. “It didn't work yesterday, and it's not working today and it won't work tomorrow. But this novel diversion pilot program is an innovative step in the right direction,” he added.

The pilot program will focus first on callers with suicidal ideation who do not have weapons or plans to harm themselves; these situations account for about 1,000 calls to 911 each year. That small start is intentional, Scott said: “The matter is too important to simply do it fast. I'm committed to doing this the right way by evaluating our daily progress and shifting course as needed.”

For the last several weeks, Baltimore’s 911 operators have received training to screen callers, said Tenea Reddick, the director of the emergency line service for the city. When the pilot begins, operators will connect those callers to a trained mental health clinician at the Here2Help line, which will be operated by Baltimore Crisis Response, Inc. The clinician, after discussing a caller’s situation and needs, can then either direct the caller to resources or dispatch a mobile crisis team, which consists of a licensed mental health clinician and a registered nurse.

Callers who are diverted to the Here2Help line can expect a compassionate listener, said Edgar Wiggins, BCRI’s founder and executive director. The organization currently operates a crisis hotline with about 170 employees.

“Trained crisis counselors deal with a range of calls, calls from people who simply are looking to get connected with services all the way up to and including people that are in a suicidal crisis,” Wiggins said. “Our crisis counselors are quite skilled and able to assess calls and provide the appropriate level of intervention.”

Behavioral Health System Baltimore, a nonprofit that the city contracts for behavioral health services, subcontracted BCRI for the pilot. Costs will come out of the city’s existing BHSB contract, Scott said.

There are strategies in place to ensure that crisis responses to the diverted calls do not become violent, the mayor said, adding that he cannot disclose internal policies.

Sunny Schnitzer, Baltimore’s deputy mayor for public safety, said that there will be daily quality assurance meetings among different organizations to evaluate the responses to all calls and dispatch protocol.

“As we make adjustments, I want to be very clear that we intend to be very public and open about what you can expect from this program and any growth or changes,” she said.

Schnitzer added that the pilot is a first step and that the city intends to eventually expand the program beyond behavioral health responses to include peer support, housing opportunities and community-based youth diversion.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who plans to introduce legislation to create similar programs nationally, said the city’s pilot can serve as a national example of connecting residents with the mental health services they need. He noted that people with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in those police encounters than people without mental illness.

“A one-size-fits-all response does not serve the public safety interest,” he said, pointing to the death of Daniel Prude. In 2020, Prude’s brother dialed emergency services for help in Rochester, New York, after he ingested PCP and began exhibiting suicidal behavior. Prude died after his encounter with police.

“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.

Van Hollen, Scott and police officials also say that the program will free up BPD officers to spend more time focusing on violent crime.

“What this is about is making sure that the police resources can be focused on situations that require a police response,” Van Hollen said.

Schnitzer agreed but stressed that the program’s main goal is to help residents.

“While we do expect there will be potential benefits in terms of freed up officer time, our primary metric of success is positive outcomes for people who call 911 who are in behavioral health crisis,” she said.