HJ23: Researcher-activists call for a non-police response to mental health emergency calls

Panelist Karishma Furtado, director of data and research at Forward Through Ferguson, listens to co-panelist Jia Lian Yang, director of storytelling and communications for Forward Through Ferguson and host-producer of St. Louis Public Radio’s “We Live Here” program, during the “Localize it: Transforming 911 in St. Louis” HJ23 session.

Removing 911 emergency call centers from police department oversight, placing them outside of police offices and training 911 dispatchers to do their jobs without racial and cultural bias are among the key recommendations of a Washington University report slated to be released in April.

Based on an analysis of more than 1.2 million calls to the St. Louis Police Department during five recent years, that report, “Transforming 911,” spotlights the excessive use of police force, including against people with mental illness in the city.

It argues for new protocols aimed at lessening injuries and killings by law enforcement and for a workforce of non-uniformed first responders who intervene in cases involving, among others, people with mental and/or behavioral disorders. The research started before the July 2022 launch of the nation’s still developing 988 mental health crisis line, which the report does not assess. 

“Calling 911 results in an armed police officer being sent to the scene almost 100% of the time, even when that response is neither needed nor desired,” Karishma Furtado, director of data and research at Forward Through Ferguson told AHCJ members during the Health Journalism 2023 conference in St. Louis. “That’s the bigger picture we’re trying to point to with the project. So, we think that Transforming 911 is really a major step toward reimagining public safety more broadly.”

Community leaders started Forward Through Ferguson in response to a white Ferguson Police Department officer’s shooting death of Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, in 2014.

A revamp of 911 in St. Louis and many other cities, said Furtado, also an Urban Institute Equity Scholar, would require creating systems that more accurately characterize which 911 calls are requests to intervene in incidents involving people with mental and/or behavioral disorders.

Such incidents accounted for 1% of those 1.2 million calls, but that data likely is highly inaccurate, Furtado said.

“I really have a question around how well our call takers are being trained to use those codes” that are designed to flag 911 requests for interventions with persons in mental distress, she said, suggesting that 911 dispatcher training is inadequate. “So, I think that there is probably some lack of detection that’s happening across those four codes.”

St. Louis Police Department data don’t reflect what residents have told researchers about their interactions with police or what medical clinicians have documented regarding the prevalence of mental illness in the city, including communities that are over-policed, she added.

The coming report will explore the training of dispatchers, their cultural and workplace backgrounds, their salaries and training, said AHCJ panelist Jia Lian Yang, director of storytelling and communications for Forward Through Ferguson and host-producer of St. Louis Public Radio’s “We Live Here” program.

And the report will include anecdotes from residents who shared their experiences with police dispatched by 911. This one is on Transform 911’s website: “My mom’s bipolar … Her meds stopped working last year, and we didn’t call the cops. We tried different crisis hotlines, and everybody told us to just call 911. And my mom is just like me — she doesn’t respond well to police … If there was a way to help people in crisis with people who were not wearing police uniforms and didn’t carry weapons, that would be great.”

“A lot of people do call 911 both locally and nationally,” Yang said. “And yet, it’s something that they do as a last resort … [P]articularly people who are Black [and who] are being criminalized, sometimes even for calling for help.”  

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