New Haven leaders say new crisis response team will help residents get the right assistance they need during emergencies

New Haven

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Officials in New Haven have created a Community Crisis Response Team to help residents get the assistance they need during emergencies.

The team will consist of experts in harm reduction, mental health, substance use and other social supports that will send appropriate calls through the 911 call center.

This is the kind of thing that those protestors shouting “defund the police” really mean. They don’t mean get rid of the police, but rather that police often get called to situations that do not call for an armed officer to arrest someone. Thousands of calls for service come into the New Haven Police Department each year, but leaders said they’re not all calls officers need/should to help with.

“Too often police are called to address the gaps in social services, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” said New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker.

“Oftentimes, we, as police, respond and we’re responding to issues that we cannot arrest our way out of and our options are very limited,” added New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes.

Calls will be dispatched through the call center by a social worker, nurse or EMT, who will be able to help with de-escalation, harm reduction and other services before police become involved.

“According to the CDC, almost 15 percent of New Haven residents have a mental health diagnosis,” Community Services Administrator Dr. Mehul Dalal. “Last year [2019] we had over 500 individuals experiencing homelessness in our city. More recently, we’ve seen some concerning upticks in overdoses in our city.”

The unarmed team would be dispatched for non-criminal emergencies for incidents like overdoses and other mental health episodes that may not necessarily require an armed officer.

Let’s say you come home and find a homeless guy sleeping in the lobby of your apartment building. You call 911, and they send police. But neither you or that guy need him put in handcuffs. You need homeless services to find him a bed in a shelter.

Let’s say there is a disturbed woman shouting to herself on the sidewalk outside your business. You call 911, they send police, but she really needs a mental health professional, not to be put in handcuffs. This team would send the right people to those emergencies.

Officers for these kinds of calls would be the second responders on the scene if needed, but the goal is to afford the right kind of response that would de-escalate a situation without police, so officers can focus on criminal and violent activity in the city.

“Our goal with the Mobile Crisis Response Team is to ensure the people with the right expertise and skills respond to the right calls,” said Elicker. “Currently, our Police Officers are often required to respond to many calls that might be better suited for someone with other expertise such as mental health or substance use. The vision for the mobile crisis response team is to respond to lower acuity calls so Police can focus on violence prevention. Our Police Department is working hard to ensure public safety in our community, but we must be more thoughtful about what it means to keep our community safe. The Mobile Crisis Response Teams are intended to reduce the strains on our Police Department and improve the outcomes of 911 calls.”

Elicker said recent events around the nation are what’s helping to push this change. The city already defunded a million dollars from the police department to allocate towards things like this.

“There’s clearly been a national outcry for change, and we in New Haven, we do just that when it comes to public safety,” he said. “This is part of a broader conversation in our country about what we must reckon with in particular the criminalization of people of color, communities of color in particular Black men and the inequities in our criminal justice system.”

New Haven Fire Chief John Alston said the city needs a different approach to 911 responses, adding that the day also marking two years since 116 people — in just 36 hours — were found unresponsive on the New Haven Green. Officials said they overdosed after taking synthetic marijuana known as K2.

“To see a crisis team put together like this that can intervene and intercede and provide wrap around services and identify issues to keep people from continuing that cycle which burdens the 911 system and burdens our emergency rooms and pulls police officers from calls where they can be more effective,” Alston said.

When creating the program, city leaders learned from others like Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS), which was implemented by the White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon.

CAHOOTS relies on effective communication, trauma-informed care and harm reduction. The goal of this program was not to fix an issue, but rather to connect the person in need with immediate services from the city.

CAHOOTS also aimed at emergency room diversion and jail diversion for individuals.

Early estimates of the CAHOOTS program indicate it saves Eugene, Oregon, about $8.5 million annually.

“There are so many ways in which the Community Crisis Response Team can help alleviate the calls for service to our first responders,” said Dalal. “We have learned from many municipalities and local governments different ways to address issues residents are facing, but without impacting our limited resources.”

Leaders plan to implement the Mobile Crisis Response Teams in three phases.

“There will be a planning phase of approximately six months,” officials said in a statement. “During the planning phase, we will collect community and stakeholder input, and establish a strong collaboration with relevant city agencies and service providers to implement the program. During the first phase, we will pilot the program on a smaller scale, potentially with limited hours of service and geographic limitations within the City. The subsequent phases will scale up operations until the third phase, where the City hopes to implement a 24/7 service provision covering the whole City.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin created a similar response team back in June.

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