Since the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a handful of crisis-response teams have cropped up around the country, said Janine Perazzo, a senior director of behavioral health with New York City’s mobile crisis team. Many of these teams, including New York’s, focus on emergencies that involve people struggling with mental illness, she said.
“The purpose is to provide a behavioral health response to 911 calls when there’s not a worry of either a medical emergency or . . . of injury to self or others,” she added.
Research compiled by the Brookings Institution last year found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians. The vast disparity raises “questions about what role — if any — police should play in such cases,” the researchers wrote.
In Cambridge, the City Council recently approved a plan to create a “holistic emergency alternative response team” for mental health crises. But Lynn is the first municipality to fundsuch a team, organizers said.
The emergency response team, nicknamed ALERT, will respond to nonviolent emergencies without weapons or the use of force, and hopefully independent of the police, coalition members said.
“Police approach [people] threatening to control and subdue,” said the Rev. Bernadette Hickman-Maynard, president of the Essex County Community Organization and one of the coalition leaders. But “these people are going to have de-escalation skills, and also extensive training in racial and cultural sensitivity.”
The team will consist of social workers and mental health counselors, many of whom have firsthand experience dealing with challenges such as housing insecurity and substance abuse, Hickman-Maynard said.
Paz said the coalition drew inspiration from CAHOOTS, the country’s oldest unarmed crisis-response team, founded in Eugene, Ore. in 1989. According to the program, workers responded to 24,000 calls in 2019, roughly 20 percent of all calls dispatched by 911. That saved approximately $14 million in medical and transportation costs, the group said. CAHOOTS also saves the Eugene Police Department more than $8 million in a typical year.
The coalition estimated in a report that a crisis team in Lynn could divert approximately 13 percent of emergency calls now handled by police. In 2019, “person in crisis” was the reason that most often resulted in Lynn police’s use of force, and while the total number of arrests has decreased since 2015, the “use of force remains stubbornly consistent,” the report said.
Last summer, coalition members held a protest at City Hall to demand that the city reallocate at least 10 percent of the police budget to create an unarmed response team. In response, Mayor Thomas McGee set aside $25,000 for the coalition to assess the feasibility of an alternative to traditional policing. Lynn’s population is 14 percent Black people and 43 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to 2019 census data.
McGee said the crisis team is the final step in a series of reforms to better support communities of color, including mandating body cameras for police officers and hiring a diversity and inclusion officer in the mayor’s office.
The Lynn Police Association, a union that represents rank-and-file officers, said it will continue to participate in discussions about the program, but cautioned that “it has to be realistic.”
Thomas Reddy, a spokesman, said union members will offer feedback once there’s a concrete plan but expressed broad reservations about safety.
“There are some public safety factors to adhere to in the community,” he said. “But we’re more than willing to work with everybody involved to try and get something done.”
The Lynn Police Department was among the first in the state to introduce a mental health component to training sessions, and officers are trained to respond to a variety of crises, he said.
McGee applauded the work of the police but said he looked forward to “creating an opportunity to address mental health, homelessness, and other issues with people that focus specifically on those issues.” The crisis-response group could “take some of the things that the police have to deal with off their plate,” he said.
Hickman-Maynard said she’s hopeful the team will eventually respond to other nonviolent matters, such as noise and loitering, which she listed among the offenses that sometimes result in the use of excessive force.
“I do believe that there is a wide range of crises, wider than we are proposing with ALERT, that could best be handled by a nonviolent approach,” she said. “That’s the future of public safety that keeps everybody safe.”
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