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Phoenix activists want independent first responder unit for mental health

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PHOENIX – The expansion of a program focused on handling 911 mental health calls in Phoenix has faced community opposition.

A woman named Stephanie addressed the Phoenix City Council during public comment of a policy session on May 4.

She said, “We know the police and fire work in tandem and we cannot expect the public to trust anything that come out of either of these departments.”

Her opposition refers to the proposed massive overhaul to how interactions between Phoenix first responders and those experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis are handled.

Mayor Kate Gallego and the city of Phoenix announced a proposal in March that includes a $15 million investment to increase the services in the already established Community Assistance Program.

The program has existed since 1995 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.

Gallego told KTAR News 92.3 FM in March, “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.”

But now there seems to be growing opposition to who is handling these calls in the first place.

A community activist group known as “The W.E. Rising Project” believes the fire department should not be in control of such a program.

The group has instead proposed another option known as “NOCAP,” described on Twitter as a neighborhood crisis assistance program.

“Our department would be trained to lead from a humanitarian standpoint, lead with caring over policing,” Jacob Raiford, lead organizer for “The W.E. Rising Project,” said.

Raiford believes because the fire department advocates for the police department’s practices, they should not be trusted with the handling of crisis response.

“When you place a program that would subside under a department that advocated for an issue that is dangerous to the community, by association that makes this an untrustworthy source,” Raiford said.

Pushing back on that belief, the United Phoenix Firefighters Association is concerned about the fate of the program.

“It’s a phenomenal resource that’s just a person in a different color shirt, with a different tone of voice, a different skill set and can really handle that situation better but it’s all under the same roof which is where it needs to be,” P.J. Dean, secretary for the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, said.

Currently, the city of Phoenix has five crisis response units.

Three are funded utilizing victim of crime act grants, which requires these units to respond to crime investigation calls to assist victims and witnesses of crimes.

Two units are funded with general funds. The city of Phoenix confirmed that 50% of staffing is met with volunteers and interns.

If the budget proposal passes, the expansion will create ten crisis response units. The program would add five crisis response units and nine behavioral health units.

All of the positions would be funded utilizing general funds, which would require all the crisis response units to respond to any type of call. Staffing would no longer rely on volunteers and interns to meet minimum requirements.

The $15 million expansion for the program was made possible because of a $153 million budget surplus from the fiscal year 2020-21.

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