The Ann Arbor City Council is considering sending unarmed mental health workers or social workers to nonviolent 911 calls. The proposal emphasizes the importance of having mental health professionals present instead of the police when the caller is having a mental health crisis and limits the amount of work police can be involved with.
City Council will vote on this proposal during the meeting on April 5.
The proposed legislature is named “Resolution Directing the City Administrator to Develop an Unarmed Public Safety Response Program.” According to the proposal, currently, police officers are required to carry out tasks that are more suited for professionals in mental health, public health and human services. Some examples of these tasks include medical emergencies and suicide risks.
According to the proposal, about 22% of fatalities and a large portion of injuries in America since 2015 have been caused by police interaction with people with mental illnesses. Some of those fatalities and injuries are caused when mental health services would be more necessary than police involvement. The proposal also says the presence of firearms is unnecessary during these interactions as they can cause the caller — particularly those who are people of color — to experience more intimidation and stress.
When contacted, members of City Council directed The Michigan Daily to speak with Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox. Cox told The Daily that the police can be put in a wide range of situations during 911 calls.
“We are involved in a lot of things, and it just has to do with when people call 911, and people are unsure of who is responsible or who should go, the police are always going to respond for the most part,” Cox said.
Cox said it is not ideal in general to send police to calls pertaining to mental health because the police are not properly prepared and do not have enough training to best respond to these situations.
“We are not mental health professionals,” Cox said. “In comparison to the professionals, I would say no, our training is not adequate.”
The police department was not involved in the proposal, Cox said, but it was consulted from time to time on the resolution’s viability.
In early March, the Michigan Department of Treasury decided to distribute around $10 million dollars of marijuana tax money to towns and municipalities as part of the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act. On March 15th, the Ann Arbor City Council voted to devote the money they’ve received to public safety. This proposal to send unarmed mental health professionals to 911 calls is part of the public safety initiative.
The Ann Arbor Police Department and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, a community mental health provider, currently collaborate with each other on mental health services through their Crisis Support Team. This service is not accessible though 911 but through a different phone number: 734-544-3050. Anyone who has an urgent need that is related to mental health can call this number.
The proposal calls for further collaboration with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office Metro Dispatch and more mental health organizations.
One key task under this proposal is identifying which calls are nonviolent and consist of no criminal activities. Collaboration between the police and mental health services would be needed to distinguish calls such as “non-emergency medical calls, homeless encampments, medical transport requests, some mental health in crisis calls, and other similar calls with no direct nexus to suspected criminal activity or clear and present threat to the physical safety of others,” according to the legislature text.
Cox said that right now, calls do get screened to determine the type of situation, but the police are usually the one that respond.
“Traditionally, when people dial 911, they do try to screen calls, but there is so much unknown,” Cox said. “When a call is unknown, the catch-all is the police.”
LSA junior Alexander Koons is a member of The Alba Project, a student organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into society with a focus on mental health. He said he supports the proposal and thinks that the police do not have the best system for handling mental health cases.
“In our experience meeting and talking with many people who are either currently or formerly incarcerated, many mental health emergencies were escalated by the police,” Koons said. “Additionally, current institutions aren’t looking enough at the big picture of actually addressing why these mental-health-related 911 calls happen in the first place. While mental health experts responding to these calls is not the be-all-end-all solution, it is one step closer to re-envisioning the ways that we can better serve all members of our community.”
But Liberate Don’t Incarcerate — a Washtenaw County-based group advocating for an end to mass incarceration — posted to Facebook explaining that, while they support the development of an unarmed response team, they would prefer City Council’s proposal be delayed. Law enforcement’s role in the development process, the possibility of the proposal leading to an expanded police budget and some members preferring a community response model are included as reasons for their request.
“We’ll be working with our fellow community members to craft a vision for what a true community-driven response team would look like, partly informed by other models across the country, with a clear and transformative localized approach,” the post said. “With this in mind, we’re asking that this resolution be tabled until a collective, community driven path forward is identified.”
Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.