New study shows benefits of dispatching mental health specialists in nonviolent 911 emergencies
As U.S. cities rethink law enforcement’s role in nonviolent 911 emergencies, new Stanford research reveals the strongest evidence yet that sending mental health professionals instead of police officers could have significant benefits in some cases.
The study of a pilot 911 response program in Denver, in which mental health specialists responded to calls related to trespassing and other nonviolent events, found a 34% drop in reported crimes during the six-month trial. The research by Stanford scientists Thomas Dee and Jaymes Pyne also found that the direct costs of the 911 alternative approach were four times lower than the police’s.
“We provide strong, credible evidence that providing mental health support in targeted, nonviolent emergencies can dramatically reduce minor crimes without increasing violent crimes,” said Dee, the Barnett Family Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).
“In our politically divided times,” says Dee, “this first-responder innovation presents a rare opportunity for consensus on meaningfully improving public safety and health.”
The analysis – published on June 8 in scientific progress-comes at a pivotal time in wider national discussions about the performance of police officers who often serve as first responders. Public attention to the challenges of providing humane and effective policing has grown dramatically since George Floyd was murdered in 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer following a 911 call over an alleged counterfeit bill, as well as in the wake of concerns over reactions from police school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and, most recently, Uvalde, Texas.
This public discourse has also included a growing awareness of the potentially counterproductive – and sometimes tragic – consequences of having the police act as first responders in nonviolent situations involving individuals in a mental health or substance abuse crisis. Today, a small but growing number of cities across the country are running pilot programs that incorporate mental health and other social services into their emergency response procedures.
In general, police reform efforts are highly politicized. For example, while Black Lives Matter proponents call for “police defunding” in response to police brutality, opponents argue that violent crime rates are increasing in cities and that reducing police involvement, either through budget cuts or through resource redistribution, will only increase crime rates. will increase.
Dee says the findings of their study indicate there are sensible ways to reinvent emergency services and in ways that should have unusually universal appeal.
A radical pilot, a wealth of data
Several cities, including New York† Austin, Texas† San Francisco† San Mateo, Californiaand Washington, DCExperimenting with new ways to respond to certain types of mental health emergencies by little or no law enforcement. According to Dee and Pyne, cities are motivated not only by high-profile cases of police brutality, but also by estimates that police spend more time answering “low priority” calls than any other type of emergency. Those estimates, they write, suggest as many as two-thirds of these 911 calls could be forwarded to mental health experts.
Cities generally examine three alternative emergency measures: In one model, police officers are trained to direct people in crisis to the right services. A second approach is a collaboration between law enforcement and mental health professionals. A third reform, which is more dramatic and less common, removes police altogether for some 911 calls.
Descriptive evidence from other studies suggests that these models may be effective. But so far no one has linked the cause and effect of these alternative approaches to empirical evidence that they work.
Denver inside. In 2020, the city tested the third, more radical approach for six months, removing police altogether for specific 911 calls. In emergency situations involving low-risk violations, such as public intoxication, welfare checks, trespassing, and public disorder, the dispatchers dispatched a mobile team consisting of a mental health specialist and a paramedic.
The pilot program, called Support Team Assistance Response (STAR), caught Dee’s attention. Dee has worked with several Bay Area cities to evaluate similar 911 reforms as faculty director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford, and Pyne is a senior research associate at the Center. They were both intrigued by Denver’s more extreme experiment — and the fact that the city had already tried the more common tactic of additional training for police officers to better handle mental health cases.
“The concern was that training the police to manage behavioral health crises simply didn’t work,” Dee says.
Strong links to less crime, lower costs
The STAR initiative covered eight districts in Denver’s gentrifying boroughs, where low-income, high-risk 911 calls were expected to be in nonviolent situations. The STAR team handled nearly 750 incidents involving mental health, homelessness and/or substance abuse issues during the trial period from June to December 2020. Not all incidents started with a 911 call: In some cases, STAR teams were contacted directly by police officers, or they reacted to situations they encountered themselves. In any event, the STAR team would refer individuals to substance abuse treatment centers or other support services as needed.
Because Denver makes detailed crime records publicly available, investigators were able to track all adult crimes reported at all 36 Denver police stations, both prior to STAR operations and the time the program was active.
Dee and Pyne discover that dispatching mental health workers has made a huge difference. Over the course of the pilot program, reports of minor crimes in STAR-monitored neighborhoods decreased by 34% compared to crime levels observed in neighborhoods where STAR was not available. The researchers attribute the decline in crime — which they estimate as 1,400 fewer offenses based on pre-pilot rates — to fewer citations for public intoxication and other minor offenses, as well as the likelihood that would-be repeat offenders now got the help they needed. .
Dee says the study provides “credible causal” evidence that it’s possible to reinvent 911 responses in ways that are both radical and sensible.
“The community response program has two benefits,” says Dee. “First, it directs people in crisis to appropriate mental health care instead of the criminal justice system. Second, it prevents future criminal activity because the people who receive mental health care now no longer commit crimes.”
In one of several quality checks on their data, Dee and Pyne also look at reports of more serious crimes that the police, not the STAR teams, responded to in the areas concerned. They find no discernible increase in those crime rates, suggesting that the STAR program has caused the decline in low-level criminal activity.
The authors also show that the STAR program has saved money. They calculate that the direct cost of responding to each offense averaged $151, which is four times less than the estimated average direct cost of $646 per minor offense. Dee points out that these estimates do not include the follow-up costs of substance abuse treatment or other support services, nor the costs of incarceration. However, he believes the benefits far outweigh the costs. “I would also argue that it’s just about doing the right thing. People in mental health crisis need appropriate healthcare and they’re just less likely to get it if we refer them to the criminal justice system,” he says.
While the findings are consistent with other less compelling evidence from cities experimenting with new emergency response models, Dee says the study comes as close as any research to date has linked non-police response to falls in crime. and costs.
“These results are extremely promising,” says Dee. However, he warns that more pilots and studies are needed to ensure that any permanent reforms are properly implemented.
“This is not something every 911 system should implement tomorrow,” he says. “This reform requires thoughtful and detailed implementation — from educating people who handle 911 calls to hiring the right kind of mental health counselors and careful coordination with law enforcement agencies.”
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Thomas S. Dee et al, An approach to community response to mental health crises and substance abuse reduced crime, scientific progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm2106† www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abm2106
Quote: New study shows benefits of dispatching mental health specialists in nonviolent 911 emergencies (2022, June 8), retrieved June 9, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-benefits-dispatching -mental-health-specialists.html
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