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Person in Crisis Team Provides Alternative Response to Mental Health Calls

Patti Singer

The city launched a pilot program Jan. 21, 2021 to divert some emergency calls from law enforcement. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

In the months since the video of Daniel Prude’s encounter with Rochester Police officers became public, many people have asked why law enforcement is the default response for people in crisis. What would an alternative look like?

Starting Jan. 21, city residents will find out.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren announced the launch of a pilot program for the Person in Crisis Team, a 24/7 alternative to police when someone is in emotional distress.

“Today is an extremely important day for the citizens of Rochester,” Warren said. “I’ve stood before you on several occasions acknowledging the flaws and failures that exist in our current system of public safety. I’ve acknowledged that mistakes were made. But I also vowed that I would do everything in my power to rectify the institutional and systemic problems that plague this community. … Today, we take a major step toward delivering that change by revamping the way we respond to non-violent crises.”

Two-member PIC teams are able to respond to emergency calls involving mental health, substance abuse and related issues. PIC teams are made up of a social worker or mental health counselor who has additional training. The initial complement of 14 people have been hired, three of them full time.

PIC members will not be dispatched if the call involves weapons, injuries or a crime. Approximately 2,700 calls are received each year that could meet criteria for PIC response, the mayor said. PIC team will connect individuals to care.

The PIC Team was developed in response to the death of Daniel Prude while in custody of police who responded to the call of a person in distress. Daniele Lyman-Torres, commissioner of the Department of Recreation and Human Services, which oversees PIC said she had not assessed whether that call would have been eligible for that response if it had existed last March. “The assessments we have in place will screen and take high-conflict calls and make sure the right resources, which could include EMS, will be dispatched.”

PIC is modeled on programs in Eugene, Oregon, and other cities. PIC is part of the city’s response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that all municipalities reimagine their public safety.

A similar type of diversion was expected to begin with town and village police departments in Monroe County but had yet to receive the publicity of the city’s program.

In the city, calls can be made to 211/Lifeline or 911 and dispatchers will collect the information necessary to determine the appropriate response.

The PIC Team is part of the Crisis Intervention Services Office, part of the Department of Recreation and Human Services. It is funded from money diverted from the budget for the Rochester Police Department. The pilot will run into June, at which time a review and recommendations for improvements will be made.

Daniele Lyman-Torres, commissioner of the Department of Recreation and Human Services and Alia Henton-Williams, left, coordinator of Crisis Intervention Services, at the launch of Person in Crisis Team, Jan. 21, 2021. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Lyman-Torres answered some questions about how PIC is designed to work:

How will this differ from the previous response of only police?

It’s the same in terms of the set of questions they’ll be asked to ascertain what level of crisis they’re experiencing so that the right resource can be sent to them. Once it’s determined that the Person in Crisis Team is that resource, what will be different is instead of ambulance or instead of law enforcement, the PIC team will go to the scene and meet the person and assess the situation and either de-escalate and make referrals and connections or make an immediate referral if required.

What will be done to ensure the safety of the scene?

When the PIC team arrives they have specific protocols to examine the scene for safety in case some things have changed between the phone call and when they arrive. They will be communicating with 911 and RPD and EMS by radio. They have specific protocols to radio and acknowledge the scene is different and different resources are required for they access the scene. … There is an emergency button to call for additional support.

Will a police car be dispatched to the general area in case officers are needed?

At this time no, not for these kinds of calls. The kinds of calls we started the pilot with, we were very deliberate. These are calls that have not traditionally required that. As we increase things in the pilot and include additional calls, we have to think about potential staging, but at this stage, with these calls, we don’t require staging law enforcement or EMS.

How will people be transported to services?

Each of the social workers on the team has an assessment process around transportation. We have contracted with a number of different providers for that service. If someone is deemed unfit for that kind of transportation, they would require an ambulance. If it’s not an ambulance situation, we have set up a variety of transportation providers on demand that will come to the scene.

Will you use a medical motor service or a ride-hailing service such as Uber?

It could be a combination, depending on the individual and the circumstances. If they’re at a level where they can’t be transported alone safely, they need an ambulance.

Is PIC excluding law enforcement or only having police under certain cases?

It’s not to exclude. It’s to put the right resource in the right place. There are definitely times when a mental health professional can address a behavioral health crisis. And they can do that without law enforcement. These are the types of calls we’re targeting.

What challenges are you anticipating?

I’m expecting there will be more demand than we have built into the pilot. So the call may be what the pilot will determine is what will be the next steps for investment in order to increase the number of resources.