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Boston plans to redirect some 911 calls to mental health workers, away from police

Acting Mayor Kim Janey said the plans will "connect residents — and their families — with the care they need."Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

The City of Boston will rely less on police officers and more on mental health workers to respond to crisis calls, under new protocols Acting Mayor Kim Janey unveiled Thursday.

The announcement comes less than a month after the police department established new policies that emphasize de-escalation and disengagement when dealing with mental health emergencies. The moves are part of a nationwide outpouring following last year’s season of civil unrest, which drew attention to tragic outcomes involving people in crises.

“I am proud to launch a pilot program that reimagines how we respond to mental health calls,” Janey said in a news conference at City Hall. “These pilot investments will connect residents — and their families — with the care they need as we bring more safety, justice, and healing to Boston neighborhoods.”


Under the moniker the Mental Health Crisis Response Working Group, heads of several key city agencies came together over 15 weeks to forge three models to guide responders.

Marty Martinez, the city’s chief of health and human services, co-led the effort with Emergency Management Services, the police department, and the city’s chief of policy. The $1.75 million to pay for the program will come from the Health and Human Services budget.

“The ultimate goal, and we think these three pilots will help to do that, is to decrease the role of police where it’s unnecessary ... to de-escalate these situations and to increase the roles of mental health workers and clinicians,” Martinez said Wednesday.

“Each call should have a response tailored to its purpose,” Janey said, adding that 911 dispatchers would be trained to differentiate among types of crisis calls.

The hope in amplifying the roles of mental health workers and decreasing the roles of police officers, Janey said, is to divert people in crisis from jails, courts, and emergency rooms to the proper care they need, while also freeing up police to deal with violent crimes rather than issues of mental health.


The first of the three models builds on the way things are already done when a crisis call goes out that involves an imminent safety risk. Currently, a mental health worker is supposed to join a police officer on such calls. But that doesn’t end up happening every time, Martinez said.

“It’s not standardized in terms of ensuring that you’ll get a clinician to show up with police when it’s needed,” he said. “This pilot will standardize that.”

The second and third models are new.

The second would strengthen EMS’s response in collaboration with mental health workers and without police officers when there is no risk of violence. The third model, which is still in planning stages, would involve a peer-led response, meaning someone who may have lived with and experienced mental illness would take the lead in an intervention.

“This is a complicated alternative,” Martinez said, but one that residents were clear that they wanted during community listening sessions.

“There are going to be some guardrails,” he said. “We need them to be trained. We want them to reflect the community that we’re responding in. These are going to be folks who aren’t clinicians, who aren’t EMTs, who are not the police.”

The first step is to hire a facilitator in September to explore options. There are successful versions of this sort of community-led program already underway in such cities as Eugene, Ore., and Houston, Martinez said.


“There are a few models across the country that we’re learning from,” he said. “We want to make sure we do it Boston specific. This model will really take the voice of the community to create it.”

Mental health advocates welcomed the city’s plan, saying the goals of the new protocols reflected their values for mental health services.

“Today’s announcement appears to be a huge step forward in making sure that individuals experiencing a mental health crisis get real help, not a police response that is traumatizing and too often results in arrest and incarceration,” said Danna Mauch, president and CEO of Massachusetts Association for Mental Health.

Janey’s pilot plan is similar to a program that mayoral challenger John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, proposed last week, a point Barros raised in an e-mail Thursday.

“I’m flattered Acting Mayor Kim Janey is impressed with my proposal,” Barros said. “I have had many positive conversations with law enforcement, social workers, and community-based organizations, and am proud of the human-centered approach to community safety that I’ve outlined in full on my campaign website and have been sharing with the community throughout my campaign.”

City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is also running for mayor, had a similar proposal last year, and filed an ordinance with two other councilors urging the city to develop a plan that would offer “an alternative response from non-law enforcement agencies.”


Milton Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Tonya Alanez can be reached at Follow her @talanez.