We want to make sure we are not making “something more of an event by sending a uniformed officer there if they are not needed,” Cleo Subido, interim director for the Office of Unified Communications said. In “some kind of a situation where there’s a distrust of law enforcement, or distrust of the fire department, or of strangers,” she said, sending police “could be doing a disservice.”
But D.C. officials say that the aim is better service, not police reform. Subido likened the change to a program that started four years ago to divert some calls about relatively minor physical ailments to registered nurses: “This really mirrors that.”
Barbara J. Bazron, director of the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, said the office “works very closely with the Metropolitan Police Department,” including on training officers in responding to mental health crises. She said the new program will help residents “get the best, most appropriate care.”
Her office already has a crisis response team to handle psychiatric emergencies and drug overdoses; the goal is to connect people with that service directly through 911.
Subido said D.C. gets about 90 calls a day related to behavioral health issues and expects that about 25 of those will be diverted through the new program.
During the six-month pilot phase, the behavioral health teams will be available from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The goal is to expand to 24/7 service in 2022. The teams will include clinicians and people who have experienced psychological struggles themselves.
Virginia is taking a similar step, mandating behavioral health crisis teams statewide.
The Virginia law says calls will be diverted from police “when feasible.” The sister of the man whose 2017 death at the hands of police inspired the change has said it is too weak to be effective.
In D.C., officers will still respond to any call involving a weapon or a perceived safety threat, including harm to the person in crisis, Subido said.
That diverges from the D.C. Police Reform Commission recommendation that police be deployed only “where a person in crisis has a weapon or for some other reason poses a significant danger to others” — and then in conjunction with, not instead of, behavioral health experts.
Olivia Dedner, a spokeswoman for the Office of the City Administrator, emphasized that the pilot is just a first step: “We have to pick a point that we start at and build our way up.”
Christy Lopez, co-chair of the reform commission and a former Justice Department official, said that the effectiveness will depend on how broadly “danger” is interpreted and whether the mental health responders have the resources they need to keep calls from being pushed back on to police.
“The norms that develop likely will be as important as the words in the policy,” she said. “It will require good training and leadership.”