D.C. extends program to dispatch more 911 mental health calls to social workers The Office of Unified Communications' director says the program will divert some calls away from D.C. police officers.
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D.C. extends program to dispatch more 911 mental health calls to social workers

D.C. is extending a pilot program to redirect some mental health crisis calls away from police. Jon/Flickr / https://n.pr/3ouabya hide caption

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Jon/Flickr / https://n.pr/3ouabya

D.C. is extending a pilot program that calls on the Office of Unified Communications to dispatch less police and more social workers for 911 calls involving mental health emergencies. Bloomberg CityLab first reported news of the program's extension.

During the first phase of the program, which Mayor Muriel Bowser announced in May, just over 2% of the behavioral health calls the OUC receives have been directed to the team responsible for the pilot, per CityLab. Cleo Subido, interim director of OUC, told the outlet the city is hiring more social workers for the next phases of the program and will possibly quadruple its capacity for behavioral health calls. In a third phase of the program, Subido says the goal is to have a third of all mental health calls get directed to this dedicated team.

OUC did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the expansion, but confirmed CityLab's reporting in a tweet.

The program was pitched in the wake of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, after which the D.C. Council appointed a 20-person D.C. Police Reform Commission. The group called for social workers to respond to more 911 calls. Nearby Montgomery County, Md., has also started expanding its behavioral health response to emergency calls.

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The intention is to reduce violent interactions between officers and civilians. Subido told The Washington Post in the spring that the city wanted to prevent escalating incidents into "something more of an event by sending a uniformed officer there if they are not needed."

The program expands on Bowser's Right Care, Right Now initiative, which sends registered nurses to some 911 calls. The newer pilot, however, required D.C.'s contracted dispatch technology provider, Hexagon, to update OUC's response technology. A Hexagon manager told CityLab the expansion wouldn't cost much, however, and that the program could potentially save D.C. money by allowing MPD officers to continue their patrol without responding to mental health emergencies.

"The sooner we can identify what a person needs — whether that is an ambulance, a doctor's appointment, or in this case, a visit from a behavioral health expert, the sooner we can help them," Bowser said with the launch of the pilot. "That's what this is about: making sure we get Washingtonians the help they need when they call us."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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