Starting next year, Anchorage will change its approach to dealing with people experiencing a mental health crisis.
With new money from an alcohol tax, the city will fund a team of mental health first responders that can take the place of a police officer when responding to someone with a mental health issue.
The idea is that first responders trained in mental health can be dispatched to situations that police are not trained to respond to. Anchorage Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel, one of the sponsors, said that will better suit the needs of the person in crisis while easing the burden on the Anchorage Police Department.
Zaletel, an attorney who has practiced mental health law for 15 years, called it a “fundamental shift” to the local response system. She championed the idea, along with Assemblymen Chris Constant and Forrest Dunbar and Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson.
Right now, when police respond to someone in a mental health crisis, Zaletel said the person often ends up in jail or a psychiatric unit at the hospital. Those can be traumatic experiences, and not necessarily the correct response.
The Mobile Crisis Team will aim to provide a tailored response, as well as limit situations that could result in a violent interaction between police and a member of the public.
“It’s the right tool for the job and I think we need to recognize that the Anchorage Police Department was already looking at models like this,” she said.
Following the passage of the municipality’s budget last week, which included funding for the Mobile Crisis Team, the Anchorage Police Department issued a statement supporting the program.
“This is an important step forward for our community in meeting the needs of those in crisis,” Deputy Chief Kenneth McCoy said in the statement. “We intently studied communities in the Lower 48 who were using the Mobile Crisis Team model and are pleased to see this first step in addressing the need.”
Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus, said the team will be a valuable resource especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone is facing increased stress and anxiety.
Hodge Growden in an interview listed off fatal interactions between people of color and the police throughout the country. She said in many stressful situations, law enforcement is not what’s needed.
“We just have unfortunately too many situations that show overrepresentation of people of color experiencing the brunt of situations like this, and I think compassionate care is what’s needed, and to resolve the situation in a way that doesn’t get someone killed,” she said.
The program initially is expected to cost $1.5 million. For the first half of the year, it will operate 12 hours per day, seven days a week. A team will consist of a paramedic and a behavioral health clinician as well as a unit commander.
The alcohol tax is projected to bring in more than $11 million per year, though Zaletel said there hasn’t yet been a new projection that considers the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said after the first quarter of 2021, there will be a more accurate idea of how much money the tax will bring in.
The tax will also go to fund domestic violence prevention programs, prekindergarten, child abuse prevention programs, substance misuse treatment and housing and shelter for the homeless.
Zaletel said the hope is that by July 1 there will be a better idea of available funding and data from the first six months of the Mobile Crisis Team to make a case for increasing the program to 24-hour coverage.
That, Zaletel said, would divert an estimated 7,300 calls annually from the police.
“That’s quite a cost savings to APD,” she said.
Hodge Growden said she will continue to push for city leaders to better fund things like crisis intervention.
“This is the beginning,” she said. “This is just our first step.”
It’s also intended to be a proactive step that would limit the burden on other intervention systems. Within 24 hours of the crisis team’s initial response, they will follow up with the person and refer them to other services, like a counselor.
Zaletel said it could be the case where the cause of a crisis is rooted in food insecurity. The team could follow up and inform the person of the various food pantries. The idea is to deal with the root of the problem rather than allowing it to spiral.
“This is just a great piece — an amazing piece, quite frankly, that needs to be in place,” she said.