Louisville Is Now Responding To Some 911 Calls With Mental Health Intervention Instead Of Police

Mar 22, 2022 at 1:17 pm
Louisville's pilot 911 diversion program started out running one shift seven days week, now it's expanding.
Louisville's pilot 911 diversion program started out running one shift seven days week, now it's expanding. Adobe stock

This story has been updated.

In a move the city hopes will reduce police runs and incarceration, a pilot program that will see a non-police response to some 911 calls in Louisville began operations on March 21, according to the mayor’s office.

The program, in which mobile responders trained in mental health crisis intervention respond in-person to some emergency calls, is operational in the Louisville Metro Police Department’s 4th Division, which covers South Louisville, Old Louisville, Shelby Park, Smoketown, Germantown, Schnitzelburg and several other neighborhoods. The 4th Division was chosen for the pilot program as it led all other LMPD divisions in the number of crisis intervention calls with more than 11 per day. 

In a statement, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who has previously said the pilot program would deflect away from “criminalizing” mental health issues, welcomed its start.

“First and foremost, this effort is meant to get residents experiencing difficulty the right care immediately,” he said in a press release. “It also will help our LMPD officers by reducing the number of runs they’re making for issues outside their expertise, and we expect it will help with the jail as well by reducing the number of people taken there who are presenting with behavioral health issues.”

LMPD chief Erika Shields also applauded the program.

“Deescalating volatile situations and connecting those in need to critical resources are key components of our work, but we recognize that some situations are better served by someone trained in behavioral health,” she said.

The city first said that it would explore options for non-police emergency response when it announced a series of reforms alongside the financial settlement with the family of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black ER tech who was killed in a botched LMPD raid in 2020 whose death sparked months of protests in Louisville.

Amid the 2020 social justice protests were calls across the country for non-police emergency response options. Those calls, often voiced by people who believe that a person with a gun is not the best responder to non-violent emergency calls like a mental health crisis or a call about a person experiencing homelessness, were at times echoed by police leaders who say their forces are not properly equipped to handle all of society’s problems, but are often called to do so.

A press release sent by the mayor’s office said when a “first-person caller” calls 911 from within the 4th Division, operators will “triage the call to determine, through a combination of automated options, if the call should be transferred to Crisis Triage Workers” who now work in a new section of MetroSafe, the Louisville agency that handles 911 calls.

According to the city, those crisis triage workers will “function like crisis hotline staff to de-escalate, provide emotional support, create a safety plan, and problem solve for the person in crisis.”

If it is determined that an in-person response is needed, mobile responders who are trained in mental health crisis intervention would go to the location of the person in crisis. 

The program, which came at the recommendation of UofL’s Commonwealth Institute of Kentucky, will initially run for “one shift” seven days a week. If successful, the city says the project could be expanded. Seven Counties Services, which works in mental and behavioral health, will operate the program. It was unclear what the daily hours of operation for the pilot program would be.

Contacted with questions about the program by LEO, mayor’s office spokesperson Jessica Wethington responded in writing with answers she said were provided by Seven Counties Services. Asked for the name of a person LEO could attribute the answers to, Wethington said she would check; After six days and multiple follow-ups, no name was provided. Seven Counties Services did not respond to interview requests from LEO.

According to the unnamed Seven Counties Services representative as quoted by the mayor’s office, mobile responders will respond to scenes without police presence once crisis triage “counselors” have established that the scene is safe enough. However, they added, “We are on the communications network and LMPD can respond very quickly if needed. One of the goals of the project is to decrease LMPD responses when it is not required.”

It remains unclear if the responders will sometimes be deployed alongside LMPD. Last year, when the pilot program was announced, Dr. Susan Buchino, assistant director of UofL’s Commonwealth Institute of Kentucky, said that in situations that were “higher risk” but would likely not escalate into safety risks for responders, they would be dispatched alongside LMPD officers.

In some cities around the country where similar programs are operational, social workers or crisis intervention specialists respond alongside police, while in others, they respond independently of police.

The northern Kentucky city of Alexandria, for example, employs social workers as part of its police department, but they respond to scenes after police have already arrived. Meanwhile, the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon — operational since 1989 — defaults to a non-police response (although police and other emergency personnel can request CAHOOTS to come to a scene as well). 

Asked about the “first-person caller” language, the unnamed Seven Counties Services representative said that initially, the program will only serve people who are calling who are in crisis themselves. They said that within a few weeks they plan to take calls from friends and family of a person in crisis and “shortly thereafter” taking calls from third-party callers.

In an interview last year, LMPD Chief Erika Shields presented the deflection program, which was still being researched at the time, as something that could be used in some cases in response to calls about disorderly persons and people experiencing behavioral or mental health crises.

“We’ve seen police across the country shoot people that have no clothes on — explain that to me,” she said. “At that point I’m like, I don’t even want a cop out there.”

The unnamed Seven Counties representative said that the community respite center would only be accessible through referrals, differentiating it from The Living Room, a city-funded project Louisville had several years ago where those in crisis could show up on their own — or be dropped off by police — and stay for a day. 

The mayor’s office did not provide a response to a question about whether the “automated options” used to determine how 911 calls should be routed referred to scripted questions asked by an operator or an automated answering system.

According to the press release sent out by the mayor’s office, Seven Counties Services has hired 11 people for the pilot program. Seven will be on the mobile response team, while two will be working inside MetroSafe “triaging calls.” The other two employees are case managers “who will provide follow up and connection to services after the call.”

The mobile responders will “have the option” of bringing people in crisis to a 24/7 “community respite center” that is located at one of Seven Counties Services’ addiction recovery centers or to “another community resource, such as a shelter.”

According to the city, the UofL will evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot project and issue a report within two to three months.

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