Tallahassee Police launches mobile response team for mental health calls

Tallahassee Police launches mobile response team for mental health calls

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The Tallahassee Police Department and the Apalachee Center have launched their new pilot project to send mental health professionals rather than traditional beat cops to non-violent calls involving people in crisis.

After months of planning, the Tallahassee Emergency Assessment Mobile unit (TEAM for short) quietly started operations March 29. City officials will have an official kick-off Wednesday morning at Tallahassee Fire Department Station 1, where the mobile response unit is housed.

The TEAM, a collaboration of TPD, TFD, Apalachee Center and the Consolidated Dispatch Agency, is designed to bring an alternative approach to the flood of calls that come into police and firefighters for mental-health services. It consists of a licensed mental health professional, a paramedic or EMT and an officer in non-traditional garb trained in crisis intervention, who travel together in a city transit van.

Proponents hope the TEAM will redirect people in mental health crisis from the criminal justice system to treatment and services — while freeing up police and firefighters to focus on their core missions. They also hope it will help deescalate volatile scenes and reduce unnecessary arrests and uses of force.

Mayor John Dailey proposed the program last year in the wake of several fatal officer shootings of suspects, including at least one with a history of mental illness. City commissioners last November approved the program, along with a half-million dollars in funding.

“It’s important for us to think outside the box and really take services and take all of our knowledge to the people,” Dailey said during a virtual meeting in January with the League of Women Voters. “There are many times in our community where we have crisis situations where we need mental health experts on the scene right then and there.”

Dailey, working with Jay Reeve, CEO of Apalachee Center, and emergency response agencies, looked to communities that have similar programs in place, including Eugene, Oregon, and larger cities like Dallas and Denver.

In Eugene, a long-running program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) responds to mental health calls with a van staffed with a medic and an experienced crisis worker — but not law enforcement. The Eugene Police Department estimated the program diverts between 5% and 8% of all its calls for service.

TPD Chief Lawrence Revell told the Tallahassee Democrat he hopes the city’s program will operate similarly, with no sworn officers going to mental health calls unless backup is required. He said it could take a couple of years before the TEAM is comfortable riding without officers.

“Unfortunately, over the years, police officers have become the cure-all for everything that’s going on in society, including mental health issues,” said Revell. “And there are people who are better trained to do that than us. The goal is to benefit the person in crisis and get them the help they need in that moment of crisis when they need it.”

Tallahassee city officials projected that TEAM would respond to some 2,385 calls in its first year, saving nearly 3,000 hours that would otherwise be logged by police officers.

And while the TEAM is starting with only two units working five days a week, proponents hope it will expand if it proves successful to operating 24 hours a day seven days a week. It will operate for now within city limits.

Check back with Tallahassee.com for more on this story.

Contact Jeff Burlew at jburlew@tallahassee.com or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.

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