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Proposed Phoenix budget has $15M to revamp 911 mental health response

(Pixabay photo)

PHOENIX – The city of Phoenix is working to expand a program that will dispatch mental health specialists instead of police officers for 911 calls related to mental and behavioral health problems.

“Our police officers have said that people call 911 and ask for police because they don’t know who else to call – this program is the answer to that problem,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Wednesday.

During a city council policy session on Tuesday, the city’s trial budget included a massive overhaul to how interactions between first responders and those experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis are handled.

The budget proposed includes a $15 million investment to increase the services in the already established Community Assistance Program.

The program has existed for years within the fire department but was not adequately funded for this kind of program and was staffed largely by volunteers.

As a result, many 911 calls stemming from those in a mental or behavioral health crisis have often been handled by police.

“We want to make sure we have the right response to this and we’re proposing a significant investment to have social workers and their partners go out in the community to respond to 911 calls and to try and really improve outcomes,” Gallego said.

Once the final budget is approved, the Community Assistance Program will continue to operate through the Phoenix Fire Department but remove primary responsibility for mental health response from Phoenix Police.

Instead, when it’s fully operational, it will consist of 19 mobile crisis response units.

Ten units are said to be professionally staffed by civilian city of Phoenix employees and will provide crisis response, connection to care and other social services.

The nine other units will involve a public-private partnership with a behavioral health provider to ensure those who suffer with mental and behavioral health conditions receive ongoing case management and counseling services.

“This is huge for us,” Phoenix Fire Cpt. Rob McDade told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

“We respond to any medical emergency, but sometimes when we get on scene, we realize these individuals that we serve need that next level mental health help and these individuals that will be put into the system will provide that help – that much-needed help for those that we serve,” McDade added.

The city of Phoenix has an open budget process and invites residents to participate. They will have a series of budget hearings throughout the month of April where folks can participate online, email, or call-in and share their priorities.

Starting in May, the city will have a series of votes to approve the budget.

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