Durham city leaders OK plan to have mental health professionals with police on certain 911 calls

DURHAM, NC (WNCN) — The city of Durham is one step closer to having a mental health professional accompany a police officer on certain 911 calls. On Monday, the city council approved the grant for the program.

Ryan Smith, the city’s community safety department director, said now the Durham Police Department and his department can officially begin planning.

Under the program, three mental health professionals will be hired. Smith said two of them would go out on calls with crisis intervention team trained police officers. A third person would assess 911 calls as part of a crisis call diversion program included in the grant.

“We’re doing it to best meet the needs of residents in crisis in recognizing that the diversity of reasons for which people call 911 also warrants and necessitates that we have a diversity of types of responders and models that we’re trying to meet those needs with,” Smith said.

Smith said the co-response program is part of a larger effort to rethink who shows up when someone calls 911. It’s separate from Durham’s initiative to have unarmed responders go to non-violent calls.

“One part of it is so we can make sure — regardless of the risk involved in a situation — we’re able to send the right personnel,” he said.

The city received $492,239 in federal grant money, with a local match of $356,098. Smith said the local match would come from the city and from whoever the city contracts with to provide clinicians under the grant.

According to the Community Safety Department, 14 percent of all calls are eligible for co-response, or 1,431 calls per month. Smith said an example would be a suicide threat call where the person has a weapon.

“That is a situation that would be really appropriate for co-response because a weapon is present and in a person’s hand there’s a level, a level of risk there, for which we would not feel comfortable sending unarmed responders,” he said. “This is also a situation where a crisis call diversion could be helpful.”

CBS 17 reached out to the Durham Police Department to discuss the program and is waiting to hear back. Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews sent a letter to the city, which says in part:

“The purpose of the Connect and Protect Program to support law enforcement-behavioral health cross-system collaboration to improve public safety responses and outcomes for individuals with mental illness (MI) and co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse (CMISA) issues.”

Smith said the crisis call diversion program is expected to begin in the summer, and the co-response teams will likely roll out in the fall.

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