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Mayor Bowser Launching New Mental Health Emergency Dispatch Pilot Program

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

(Washington, DC) – This week, during Mental Health Awareness Month, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the District is launching a pilot program to shift 911 calls for emergency mental health services from an automatic police dispatch to a dispatch inclusive of a mental health crisis response.

“This program builds on all our efforts to make sure we are providing residents the right care at the right time,” said Mayor Bowser. “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. That’s what this is about: making sure we get Washingtonians the help they need when they call us.”

The pilot is a partnership between the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, the Office of the City Administrator, the Office of Unified Communications (OUC), and the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH). During the pilot, DBH’s Community Response Teams (CRT) will serve as specialized, rapid response units to be dispatched to mental health-related 911 calls instead of automatically deploying police officers.

To prepare for the pilot, which will launch in June, 911 operators will receive specialized training to help identify situations when the CRT units should be engaged and whether a police response is appropriate.

“This initiative strengthens the clinical response to all crisis calls for mental health care including those that come directly to DBH, as well as those through the 911 system to get people the best, most appropriate treatment and supports they need, ” said DBH Director Dr. Barbara J. Bazron.

The District is joining a growing number of cities across the country that are implementing similar systems.

“We’re grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with DBH to create new pathways for management of the city’s 911 calls. At the OUC, we recognize how critical it is to dispatch the most appropriate response to emergency incidents,” said Interim OUC Director Cleo Subido.

OUC is finalizing the call types most appropriate for the pilot, forecasting potential call volumes, and reviewing past incident outcomes in coordination with other District agencies. The CRT, which currently is dispatched to hundreds of calls each month, will work with community partners and consumer-led groups to promote the availability of clinician-led teams for emergency mental health care.

At the conclusion of the pilot program, OUC and DBH will analyze the results to determine additional modifications that could further improve behavioral health outcomes.