Baltimore will start diverting some calls to behavioral health specialists instead of police by early June, Mayor Brandon Scott announced on Friday. Image via Facebook Live.

As part of a nationwide push to reduce the presence of police in certain crisis situations, Baltimore City will begin diverting some calls for service to behavioral health specialists and community partners by early June, Mayor Brandon Scott announced on Friday.

The city this summer will implement its 9-1-1 call diversion pilot program in partnership with Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB) and Baltimore Crisis Response, Inc. (BCRI).

“Baltimore is home to world-class medical institutions, and we have an opportunity to deliver premier clinical care and supportive services to residents experiencing behavioral health and substance use crises,” Scott said in a statement.

The pilot program will free police officers to focus more on violence, he added.

This comes as Baltimore’s homicide rate this year is 17% higher than last year, The Baltimore Sun reported.

Scott addressed potential concerns about call diversion during a press conference on Friday.

“This pilot is not about defunding police,” he said, but rather an acknowledgement that police and fire personnel should not be handling every category of emergency call.

Scott said approximately 13,000 crisis calls come into the city’s 9-1-1 system each year, and many could be handled by health professionals instead of law enforcement officials.

When Baltimore residents call 9-1-1, a specialist will determine whether the call is appropriate to refer to a health professional.

The 9-1-1 call center will divert two call types to health professionals: “non-suicidal and alert” and “suicidal and alert,” which can include psychiatric distress, abnormal behavior and suicide.

Annually, Baltimore’s 9-1-1 operators receive an estimated 1,000 calls that match those categories, city officials said.

Under the pilot program, appropriate calls will be referred to a trained mental health clinician at the free and confidential Here2Help line, operated by Baltimore Crisis Response Inc.

Residents can also call the Here2Help line directly at 410-433-5175, available 24 hours a day.

“I look forward to deepening this work and growing our public health diversion options over time, in partnership with community-based organizations,” Scott said.

The pilot program aligns with the city police department’s federal consent decree, requiring the diversion of appropriate behavioral health calls away from the police department and to other services and partners over time.

An internal working group will provide quality assurance. The Collaborative Planning and Implementation Committee, which comprises health, legal, agency and community partners, will evaluate the program’s outcomes and make recommendations for improvements.

U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who joined Scott for the announcement on Friday, said Baltimore’s soon-to-launch program will make sure city residents receive the appropriate resources for the situations they encounter.

“To improve public safety, we must ensure those experiencing behavioral health and substance use crisis situations get the help they need,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Not every emergency call requires a police response. Mayor Scott’s new pilot program will ensure Baltimore residents are connected with the appropriate resources in emergency and non-emergency situations — and will allow our police to focus their efforts where they’re actually needed,”

Van Hollen is advocating for legislation that would implement similar call diversion programs nationally.

“I’m glad to see Baltimore leading the way as an example for cities around the nation,” Van Hollen said.

The Community-Based Response Act, which Van Hollen and Bass first introduced to Congress in October 2020, would create a grant program to allow local governments to implement community-based alternatives to police responses to emergency and non-emergency situations.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...