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Mental Health

Civilian-led Crisis Response Teams Address Mental Health Crises

— September 27, 2023

Cities are sending trained civilians to mental health crises rather than law enforcement.

In recent years, a notable and promising shift has occurred in many major cities across the United States: adopting civilian-led crisis response teams to address mental health emergencies and moving away from traditional law enforcement responses. This transformation represents a crucial step towards addressing the complex intersection of mental health and public safety, aiming for more compassionate, effective, and appropriate interventions.

For decades, law enforcement agencies have been the default responders to various emergencies, including mental health crises. However, this approach often led to tragic outcomes, as police officers, despite their training, were not always adequately equipped to handle situations involving mental health issues. Incidents involving force against individuals experiencing mental health episodes highlighted the need for a more specialized and compassionate approach.

Enter civilian crisis response teams. These teams typically consist of mental health professionals, social workers, and trained crisis interventionists who can effectively assess and manage situations involving mental health. By dispatching these teams instead of armed police officers, cities recognize the importance of de-escalation and empathy. The aim is to minimize the potential for violence and provide individuals with the appropriate care they need.

Civilian-led Crisis Response Teams Address Mental Health Crises
Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

The success stories of this approach are already emerging. Cities like Eugene, Oregon, have pioneered such programs with their CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on The Streets) initiative. Instead of police officers, CAHOOTS dispatches teams of medics and crisis workers to handle calls related to mental health, homelessness, and addiction. This approach has not only improved the outcomes for those in crisis but has also led to cost savings for the city by reducing the strain on emergency medical services and law enforcement.

Similarly, the city of Denver launched the STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program, partnering with mental health experts to handle specific emergency calls made to 911. Early results from the program indicate decreased arrests and use of force incidents, highlighting the potential for a more humane and effective crisis response system.

While the transition to civilian-led crisis response teams is promising, challenges remain. Adequate funding for these programs ensures they have the necessary resources, training, and personnel to respond effectively. Additionally, coordination between these teams, law enforcement agencies, and other emergency services is crucial to guarantee a seamless response to emergencies.

Public perception and education also play a vital role. Some individuals may be skeptical about diverting responsibilities away from law enforcement, fearing a potential increase in response times or reduced safety. Therefore, clear communication about civilian teams’ objectives, capabilities, and successes is necessary to gain public trust and support.

Adopting civilian-led crisis response teams to handle mental health emergencies in major U.S. cities marks a significant positive shift in public safety paradigms. These programs aim to provide more appropriate interventions for individuals in crisis by prioritizing empathy, de-escalation, and specialized care. While challenges persist, the potential for improved outcomes for individuals in crisis and the community is hopeful. As more cities recognize the benefits of this approach, the necessity of more compassionate and effective crisis responses tams across the U.S. becomes clearer.


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