Mental crisis calls to police can be deadly. Cities try new ways to respond : Shots - Health News About 1 in 5 people killed by police since 2015 were having a mental health crisis. Like other cities, Philadelphia is trying a new approach: sending along social workers to respond to those calls.

Cities know the way police respond to mental crisis calls needs to change. But how?

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About 1 in 5 people killed by police since 2015 was experiencing a mental health crisis. Cities are struggling to change their emergency response and crisis care systems to prevent this. A big question they're grappling with - what role should police play? In Philadelphia, a new program pairs police officers with social workers to respond to calls about people who are in crisis. It is among the latest major cities to try this approach. WHYY's Nicole Leonard has this report.

NICOLE LEONARD, BYLINE: The first call from the 911 dispatch center comes in over the radio just after 8 in the morning. A woman is looking for help with her adult daughter, who has become combative after drinking alcohol.

KENNETH HARPER: So this job says female complaint in reference to dispute with daughter -, suffers from bipolar, infant on location.

LEONARD: Philadelphia police officers Kenneth Harper and Jennifer Torres are in their patrol car trying to get more details from dispatch.


JENNIFER TORRES: Can you drop T-X number...

LEONARD: In the backseat, Krystian Gardner is listening. She's not police. She's a social worker and clinician.

TORRES: Types of...

KRYSTIAN GARDNER: Do we have an age for the daughter?



TORRES: No. Is that helpful for you to know?

GARDNER: Yeah. I mean, if she's a kid, there are different resources that we would offer versus if she was an adult.

LEONARD: The team arrives at a row house in North Philadelphia. They're part of the city's new co-responder program that sends police officers and mental health professionals out on calls together. They head inside to deescalate the situation and offer support to both mom and daughter before returning to the car 40 minutes later. Officer Torres gives an update.

TORRES: In regards to her mental health, she's taking care of herself. She's taking her medication, and she's going to therapy. So we don't need to, like, help her too much on that aspect. She's actually sleeping right now, so she's - I'll give her my card, and she'll call us whenever she wake up.

LEONARD: The team's ultimate goal is to help someone with their immediate behavioral health needs and avoid an arrest or use of force. Philadelphia's program has answered more than 600 calls since last December. The team has made only one arrest so far. Social worker Krystian Gardner says that might surprise some people.

GARDNER: Because, you know, when you see the police, what do you assume? Somebody is going to jail.

LEONARD: But that's what this team is trying to prevent. Some community members think police should not be involved in this work at all. But Gardner feels she can make a difference as a clinician working alongside police because her presence can lead to a better outcome. She says it's taken time for some in law enforcement to recognize the skills and expertise she brings to crisis situations.

GARDNER: I'm coming from a place of education, so - and they're moving from a place of safety and self-preservation and, you know, keeping everybody safe. It just looks very different.

LEONARD: But her partner on the call, Officer Harper, is sold.

HARPER: Working with people that are experts in the behavioral health - I was, like, you know, this - it should have been done a long time ago.

LEONARD: Philadelphia consulted with cities like Los Angeles, Houston and Denver, which operate their own co-response teams. Chris Richardson helped found Denver's co-response program in 2016.

CHRIS RICHARDSON: This is something that should be in every single community.

LEONARD: Richardson says these programs also help cities figure out when law enforcement should be involved in crisis response and when they shouldn't.

RICHARDSON: The goal being, how do we take police out of things that don't need to be policing? Like, we're literally listening to the radio going - police are sitting next to us, saying, I don't want to go to that. Why do I have to go to that? And we're like, yeah, why do you have to go to that?

LEONARD: Richardson says that led to Denver going a step further, putting dispatch radios into the hands of crisis response teams staffed entirely by counselors and paramedics - no police at all. Those teams have answered more than 8,000 emergency calls in three years. Richardson says cities launching these programs will have to deal with certain obstacles, like finding the money to hire mental health staffers and figuring out how to make these teams available 24/7.

RICHARDSON: Each community has to tailor it to what works best for them.

LEONARD: But he says the investments are worth it because they can help drive down arrests and keep vulnerable people safe. For NPR News, I'm Nicole Leonard in Philadelphia.

SUMMERS: This story is from NPR's partnership with WHYY and KFF Health News.

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