A new era of crisis response: Philly police team up with mental health experts

In Philly, emergency response often arrives in the form of police officers. A new program seeks a more collaborative approach that addresses residents’ behavioral health needs

A mural depicts a person reaching out

"The Only Way Out is Through," by artist Eric Okdeh as part of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, was created on Lancaster Avenue in 2017. The piece aims to humanize the struggle of those dealing with addiction, and shed a light on underlying trauma. (DBHIDS/Steve Weinik)

The first call of the day from the 911 dispatch center came in shortly after 8 a.m. A mother called for help with her adult daughter, who has bipolar disorder. On this Friday morning, her daughter was intoxicated after drinking alcohol and becoming combative.

Philadelphia police officers Kenneth Harper and Jennifer Torres communicated with dispatch as they began to drive toward a neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

In the backseat, mental health clinician and social worker Krystian Gardner prepared a list of possible services and options to help this person experiencing a mental health crisis.

After the team arrived at a private residence, they spent over a half-hour with the family. Once the team returned to their car, they talked it over.

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“In regards to her mental health, [the daughter] is taking care of herself, she’s taking her medication, and she’s going to therapy, so we don’t need to help her too much on that aspect,” Officer Torres said. “She’s actually sleeping right now, so I gave her my card and she’ll call us whenever she wakes up.”

Cases like these are increasingly being assigned to Philadelphia’s Crisis Intervention Response Team, known as CIRT, which is a type of co-responder program that pairs police officers and civilian mental health professionals to respond to people in crisis.

About 1 in 5 emergency calls to police involve a behavioral health component, according to national estimates.

In Philadelphia, emergency response more often than not arrives in the form of police officers, who may not be trained in mental health crisis care. That can — and has — led to confrontation, violence, arrests, and death, as when police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr in 2020.

In an attempt to respond to these situations differently, the Philadelphia Police Department established the Behavioral Health Unit in November and officially launched CIRT as one of its main programs.

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In these first seven months, CIRT units have answered more than 430 calls — or what they refer to as initial engagements. The teams have so far made no arrests and use of force has only happened three times, according to police data.

In more than 80% of cases, people ended up getting connected to outpatient mental health and social services, voluntarily entering psychiatric treatment, being involuntarily committed to treatment, or taken to a hospital for medical treatment.

A police vehicle labeled as a CIRT vehicle drives down the road.
A CIRT vehicle on the road on July 12, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Kurt August, director of the city Office of Criminal Justice, said he hopes these outcomes will better inform strategies on how or when law enforcement should be involved in crisis intervention and how they can work with civilian professionals.

“I think the practical experiences that people have had has really opened up a lot of people’s eyes to what the work does, how it’s actually reducing harm to the community in a lot of important ways,” August said.

The co-responder program is a joint operation with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, DBHIDS, which also oversees Philly’s mobile crisis response units — an existing network of civilian, non-police mental health experts that primarily respond to calls from the national 988 suicide helpline and local crisis hotlines.

David Ayers, associate director of justice initiatives at DBHIDS, said he wants the two programs to work in parallel with each other to better meet the behavioral health needs of city residents.

“We’re trying to build a system, not a collection of individual programs,” Ayers said, “but a system that understands what the other resources are, works collaborating and cooperatively together to do the handoffs, and to really have that continuum of services that can match what the need is.”

Officers Harper and Torres joined the Behavioral Health Unit early on. Torres, who was a medical case manager prior to her career in law enforcement, said not all their colleagues understood this decision at first.

“A lot of officers were like, ‘What is that?’” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma. [They’d say] like, ‘You have to drive around with a social worker all day?’ But now as they see us working and they see us all the time, they want to join.”

CIRT calls range from lower-level behavioral needs and wellness checks to higher priority emergency calls, like someone in danger of hurting themselves or others during a psychotic break or a suicide attempt.

After each call, CIRT teams file detailed reports that are shared with two behavioral health organizations — Merakey Parkside Recovery and Elwyn — that follow up with people within 72 hours of a crisis engagement to offer additional services and long-term care options.

Police Behavioral Health Unit Commanding Officer Lt. Victoria Casale said the ultimate goal is to eventually reduce the overall number of calls to 911, especially ones that stem from unresolved crises, “because we’ve done enough work to get [people] the resources and the help that they need in one of those first responses.”

Krystian Gardner, the CIRT social worker, works for Merakey. She said it’s taken time for some in law enforcement to recognize how her expertise, skills, and approach to crisis situations can be most effective when combined with police concern for public safety.

“Having that balance, I think it makes it better,” Gardner said. “[Torres] always says, ‘You’re not in trouble,’ and I think that that helps, because when you see the police, what do you assume? Somebody’s going to jail.”

A softer and muted presence is part of CIRT’s strategy. Even the team cars are different from standard police vehicles in that they lack typical police markings.

“You don’t want to go in there blaring a loud police car,” Harper said, “because they’re already in crisis and they’ll probably feel some type of way having a lot of law enforcement present.”

Officer Harper said the decision to join the crisis team was easy. He was already used to responding to people in mental health crisis in his previous police unit, and as a military veteran, he’s had people close to him die by suicide.

“Working with people who are experts in behavioral health, I was like, this should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “Police are very needed, it’s very important, but dealing with people in mental crisis, we get a little bit of training on it, but we barely scratch the surface. So, I was all for it.”

The CIRT program currently operates from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. Philadelphia police and city leaders plan to add evening shifts by the end of this year, and have long-term plans to expand the program to a 24/7 operation.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by trained counselors who can offer free, confidential support. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889.

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