Understaffed and overworked, police and clinicians on Baltimore County’s mobile crisis teams fail to respond to more than half of calls to help people suffering mental health crises.
A one-year pilot program aims to bolster the teams by adding more behavioral health professionals and setting up a system that will redirect some 911 calls from police to behavioral health resources.
“We have a significant capacity limitation,” Police Chief Melissa Hyatt told lawmakers earlier this year during a briefing with the state Commission to Study Mental and Behavioral Health.
Currently, calls to 911 or a county crisis hotline are forwarded to one of the county’s two teams, each staffed with a clinician and an officer during a single shift. The teams split 24/7 coverage between the east and west sides of the county.
When the teams aren’t available to help — and that’s 57% of the time — call-takers route the requests for aid to patrol officers, Hyatt said.
Since September, crisis teams have responded to 1,844 calls for service out of 4,319, according to data provided by police.
With the upcoming pilot program, funded by a $1.6 million federal grant, the county aims to connect more people suffering mental crises with social resources, and in some cases, to avoid a police response.
Officials will begin meeting next month to plan the program’s rollout, police spokeswoman Joy Stewart said. It will be one more step in a series of reform measures the county began enacting last summer amid heightened national scrutiny of policing practices.
The expansion comes as the county faces a lawsuit following the November 2019 fatal police shooting of Eric Sopp, whose mother called 911 to report his suicidal behavior. Attorneys for Sopp’s family allege county officers demonstrate “a dangerous pattern and practice” of mishandling calls involving people with mental health disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises.
In another case, the county settled a lawsuit for more than $1.1 million after Tawan Boyd, 21, died following a 2016 encounter with officers and emergency medical workers in Middle River. Officers restrained Boyd and punched him, according to a police report. The state medical examiner’s office said it found he had ingested bath salts and it ruled his death was an accident.
That same year, police fatally shot 23-year-old Korryn Gaines, whose family said she was suffering mental illness, during a six-hour standoff. A jury in 2018 awarded her relatives one of the largest verdicts against a Baltimore-area police force — $38 million. The verdict is being disputed in court.
County officers used force at least 43 times between 2017 and February against mentally ill people and during calls related to involuntary psychiatric commitment, welfare checks and emergency evaluations, according to county data.
Crisis teams respond to family conflicts, substance abuse concerns and 911 calls when an individual might be a danger to themselves or others. They have become an increasingly common resource to direct people to appropriate social services, said Ayesha Delany-Brumsey, director of the behavioral health division of the Council of State Governments.
Staffed by behavioral health professionals, emergency medical technicians and sometimes by armed, plainclothes officers, the goal is to keep individuals out of emergency rooms and jails. Baltimore County contracts with the Affiliated Santé Group to provide clinician responders for its teams in the program, which started in 2001.
Officers and clinicians say their efforts have been held back by increased calls for service and limited staffing. There are just 20 part-time and full-time clinicians, and only 12 officers who have taken 40 hours of crisis intervention training, that are available to respond to behavioral health incidents in a county of nearly 830,000 residents.
“The need surpasses the resource,” said Lt. Bryan Shanks, who coordinates police crisis teams. And unusually, the county lacks a crisis stabilization center — a short-term medical care facility that connects users with social services and is a common resource in large jurisdictions — making treatment after an incident difficult, Shanks said.
“Hospitals are the last-ditch effort,” he said. “To stay in the home environment — that’s the best thing.”
Police extended the crisis teams’ coverage to all hours of the week after a 2018 report from the Council for State Governments found that insufficient staffing, a lack of coordination and a lack of oversight hindered police crisis responses.
In a 2020 report, the county’s Equitable Policing Task Force recommended another expansion and called for police to undergo more de-escalation training.
Under the pilot program, three teams will be available during day and evening shifts, the periods during which the most calls come in. The program will create a third patrol division in the central county and bring in 10 more clinicians.
Without a way to divert 911 calls to resources outside law enforcement, police “are being dispatched to every single behavioral health crisis call for service,” Hyatt said. Those officers may lack in-depth mental crisis training.
That “just is not always the best mix,” she said.
Baltimore County is the only department among the 11 that contract with Santé, most of them in the eastern part of the state, that always sends an armed officer with a behavioral health practitioner on calls, according to Michelle Grigsby-Hadett, chief operating officer for the nonprofit organization.
In other counties, she said, clinicians work with an unarmed first responder, such as a medic, or another behavioral health professional, such as a peer recovery specialist who can connect with someone in distress through shared experiences with mental illness or substance abuse.
Crisis response models without police are becoming increasingly popular across the country, Delany-Brumsey said. In Eugene, Oregon, a medic and a crisis worker handle behavioral health calls. In Denver, a paramedic and clinician are deployed to low-level incidents.
A study of the program in Eugene showed that clinicians called for police backup 1% of the time. Over six months in Denver, clinicians handled almost 750 calls for service, and never requested police.
“Are there types of calls that [police] could take out of their purview?” Delany-Brumsey said. “That’s where you’re seeing a lot of communities go.”
Hyatt estimates that expanding the crisis teams will free up approximately 900 hours for patrol officers to respond to other emergencies.
Some mental health professionals — and police officials — say police departments are not the appropriate agency to respond to a person suffering a mental crisis. In the last year, national conversations about “defunding” the police have grown. To many advocates, that means redirecting money from police budgets to social services, and leaving police to focus on law enforcement.
“We don’t send police officers to respond to a heart attack,” said Donna Batkis, a Towson-based clinical psychotherapist.
“I’m concerned that sending people with guns to [mental distress calls] increases the potential for violence, escalation and further criminalization and stigmatization of the person and the community that is suffering,” Batkis said.
But often those who call 911 for someone in crisis request a law enforcement presence, said Shanks, the Baltimore County police coordinator. And only law enforcement agencies can execute emergency petitions to involuntarily submit patients for psychiatric evaluation.
“Every situation, mental health-related or not, is unpredictable,” Shanks said.
Police and Santé officials point to diversion rates as evidence of the program’s effectiveness. Out of 2,719 crisis team interventions last year, Hyatt said that 921 people in acute need were helped without them needing to go to an emergency room and 1,348 people were connected with community health resources.
Santé estimates that its services mean individuals and the county avoid $3 million in emergency room costs and $222,000 in incarceration costs each year.
In some of Baltimore County’s highest-profile cases, it’s unclear if crisis teams were deployed.
A mobile crisis team was not deployed during the standoff with Gaines. In the aftermath of her death, the crisis teams’ coverage was expanded from 15½ hours a day to 24 hours.
“It’s one thing to have the systems in place, but you have to use them,” said J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore attorney who represents Gaines’ family.
Citing ongoing litigation, Stewart declined to say whether a mobile crisis team was requested for Sopp. His family’s attorneys allege in their lawsuit that some officers do not follow policy to offer aid, including by requesting a crisis team, when encountering someone in distress.
Sopp’s attorneys also say the county lacks a policy and adequate training for 911 dispatchers to recognize and direct mental health-related calls to officers trained in crisis assistance. The Baltimore County Office of Law denied those allegations, according to court records.
Announcement of the pilot program came just weeks before Everton Brown, who neighbors in Woodlawn said showed signs of mental illness, set his fire to his home and fatally shot three neighbors before county police shot and killed him in May.
Police said mobile crisis teams had interactions with the 56-year-old Brown before his rampage, but would not disclose further details. In records of Brown’s calls to police, dispatchers noted multiple times that it wasn’t clear to them if he was mentally ill.
At the federal level, Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen has reintroduced legislation in Congress that would create a grant program to fund alternatives to police departments for crisis-based emergency responses.
Baltimore City began a pilot program in June to divert some 911 calls to social resources instead of police.
As part of the county’s program, clinicians will take 911 calls during day and evening shifts to divert nonviolent mental crisis calls that don’t pose an immediate safety risk from law enforcement to social workers and programs.
Officials are “setting program parameters” about how many and how frequently clinicians will be placed in the call center and how they will determine which calls to divert, county spokesman Sean Naron said in an email.
The county also plans to increase training for nonclinician dispatchers on how to recognize behavioral health calls, 911 Call Center Chief Tammy Price said.
Under the pilot, Hyatt said, dispatching police is “not going be an automatic response for someone in crisis.”
Baltimore County’s 24/7 crisis response hotline is 410-931-2214.
Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo, Tim Prudente and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.
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