Alternatives to Police Intervention

Alternatives to Police Intervention

Behavioral specialists deescalate mental health crisis calls without the need for arrest or hospitalization about half the time.

 “It’s critical to have the right intervention at the right time by the right person,” when responding to a person in a mental health crisis, said Abbey May, Director, Emergency and Crisis Services, Community Services Board.

The county received 9,081 mental health related calls for service in 2021 and 6,638 in 2020 and 5,189 in 2019. There were 231 calls for service for mental health crisis in the last week, Oct. 15-21, 2021, alone.

“What we don’t have is real time primary response to 911 behavioral health calls,” May said to the Board of Supervisors during a Public Safety Committee meeting last month. To address this need, the county, in a “micropilot responder program,” has added a field team that includes a Crisis Intervention Specialist to respond to calls with police, sometimes even taking the lead in de-escalating crises.

“It’s critical to have the right intervention at the right time by the right person.”

— Abbey May, Emergency and Crisis Services, Community Services Board

The initial effort “demonstrated that this approach was effective in responding to and de-escalating behavioral health crises,” said Lisa Potter, Director, Diversion Initiatives.

About half the calls were deescalated in the community, and 40 percent were diverted from potential arrest or hospitalization, according to county reports. The response time to such calls averaged 11 minutes and specialists were able to de-escalate and divert with an average of 40 minutes of intervention on the scene.

The county began the second part of its study the day after the Sept. 28, 2021 meeting, and teams across the county will work seven days a week, pairing a crisis intervention specialist with an officer, and a crisis intervention specialist with an emergency dispatcher. 

“It’s really just a start, a starting point for us,” said Captain James Krause, Fairfax County Police Department. 

“This is certainly a priority for many,” said Rodney Lusk, chair of the Public Safety committee.

“If the call doesn’t have criminality and there’s no risk of harm, at least from the assessment of the 911 dispatcher, or a threat to self or a threat to others, do we have the behavioral health person lead and have the police officer stay back?” Lusk asked.

“This is certainly a priority for many.”

— Rodney Lusk

“Yes, that’s exactly what we are talking about, that’s what happened in the corresponder pilot,” said May. “Where we didn’t really need law enforcement, they were there as security and kind of stepped back and let the behavioral staff take the lead.”

About $4 million will fund the 26 positions needed, including 10 crisis intervention specialists, two behavioral health liaisons, one behavioral health supervisor, eight officers, one police supervisor and four peer recovery specialists. 

“I think this is something very easy to support. What you’ve recommended makes a lot of sense,” said Chairman Jeff McKay.

By July 2022, the county expects to have a 9-8-8 number ready for people to call with mental health emergencies as an alternative to 9-1-1.