Members of the Mobile Crisis Strategy Task force meeting on Sept. 30, 2022. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

This week, New Orleans will finally launch a program that sends specialized teams of mental health professionals to respond to non-violent behavioral health emergencies. 

The city receives thousands of such 911 calls every year – and in the past, police have primarily responded to them. But studies show  that people with serious mental illness are more likely to be killed by police and that mental-health conditions can be exacerbated by squad-car lights, sirens and arrests. 

Also, police across the country have long expressed concerns about officers spending disproportionate hours waiting in emergency rooms and talking through problems better resolved by social-service and healthcare professionals, who can follow up with medication and medical resources.

In New Orleans, after a two-year push by advocates and lawmakers, an alternative, non-police response program will begin this week.

Starting on Thursday, June 1, two-person teams will be available round-the-clock to respond to mental-health emergencies, either by phone or in person. The teams will pair a licensed mental -health professional with a “certified crisis intervention team member.” 

Operators at the city’s 911 center can can dispatch the new teams “to respond, stabilize, and resolve immediate behavioral crises, either by telephonic and/or face-to-face interactions,” a spokesperson for the New Orleans Health Department said.

Too frequently, people in crisis end up arrested or involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. The hope is that, now, the endpoint of most crises will be stabilization and treatment, thanks to dedicated teams, trained in mental healthcare and de-escalation. 

In 2020, according to NOPD data provided by the “Help Not Handcuffs” campaign, only about 20% of the 6,535 calls that included a mental-health signal last year ended with the person stabilized at the scene. The remainder were committed to a psychiatric hospital, 60% of them involuntarily. 

Sade Dumas, the former executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, and a member of a City Council task force established in 2021 to study an alternative mental health response, said that she was excited that the program is being realized “because our community has advocated for a program to support individuals with mental illnesses outside of the jail, instead of jailing them due to not having that support on the front end.” 

In October, the city signed a $1.3 million contract with the nonprofit organization Resources for Human Development to run the mental-health response program, which will be embedded within the Orleans Parish Communications District. OPCD handles 911 calls for the city. 

When 911 dispatchers determine a call to be non-violent and appropriate for crisis intervention, it will be routed to a “crisis call-taker,” who will handle the crisis over the telephone or route a team to the scene. 

The goal is that teams should arrive at the scene within 20 minutes, unless they are responding to other calls. Once there, they will “use their clinical discretion to resolve the crisis in the most appropriate, least restrictive setting,” the contract states. Response team members could work to connect individuals with resources, such as medication or a psychiatrist, or transport them to an emergency room for stabilization, New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno told The Lens last year.

Crisis intervention teams “will travel in identifiable, wheelchair accessible vans appropriate for patient transport to an appropriate care level location if needed,” the Health Department spokesperson said.

At a time when police have struggled with hours-long response times, the effort should also free up officers to respond more quickly to violence-crime calls, City Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. 

“We need to answer the community’s needs with the right resources and conserve NOPD officers to address urgent, violent crime,” Moreno said in a statement. “Crisis response by trained professionals has proven to be successful in other cities and even found to provide improved outcomes for people in mental health crisis. Fully standing up these services is a big step forward and I thank our Health Department, along with our community partners for working to bring new solutions to create a safer city.”

Though Dumas is also encouraged by the launch, she’d like the responses evaluated by an oversight committee of civilians and an educational campaign that “lets community members know what this is and how they can access the support.” Those steps would better ensure success by detecting problems early-on, she said. “We know there are stumbling blocks when we’re trying something new.” 

A press conference is scheduled for June 15 to provide more information on the program. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...