Psychiatrists take 911 calls in Tempe

The partnership began in February with support for people who called 911 and were experiencing a mental health crisis.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Nearly two months since the Tempe Police Department partnered with mental health professionals to reroute certain emergency calls, the department said it is seeing positive results.

Beginning in February, when a nonviolent, suicidal Tempe resident called 911, he was transferred to a psychotherapist from Solari Crisis and Human Services.

A dedicated professional also works side-by-side with dispatchers 20 hours a week to help route other mental health-related calls.

“It’s proving to be quite effective,” said Heather Brennan, a dispatcher with the department for 10 years. “So far we have been able to divert a lot of calls.”

With the new partnership, she said, more people will receive appropriate help when they call in an emergency, rather than a response from an officer that has not historically been the best resource for their needs.

Tempe Police said they estimate 65 calls have been rerouted to the crisis teams since the partnership began, but they believe the exact totals are higher.

It’s a good sign that dispatchers have this tool to better route calls to mental health professionals in situations where an officer may not be needed, said Tonya Logan, the communications office director.

“That’s the potential for a less involved official…” she added. “Well, for me, that’s the win.”

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Logan said there have been some kinks since the program was launched. Sometimes officers still have to show up to sites because of safety concerns for the crisis teams and staff shortages.

“If we’re redirecting a call and a call was a success, that just means a success because a year ago today we didn’t have that resource,” she said.

“The heart behind public safety”

Regardless of the situation or type of emergency, dispatchers are the first line of “first responders.”

“You are the heart behind public safety,” Logan said. “The burden they take on every day, and sometimes without a moment’s break between 911 calls.”

Dispatchers are tasked with evaluating, interpreting, and relaying information quickly, accurately, and calmly, even to de-escalate the crisis over the phone, said Carlena Orosco, Tempe PD’s interim crime analyst.

Because of its critical role in handling people’s “most crisis situations,” the partnership is better able to discern what calls mental health professionals need versus police officers, Orosco said.

“So that it will be solved more comprehensively and definitively and everyone will get the services they need,” she added.

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Orosco is currently working on new techniques and procedures to incorporate new capabilities in routing calls and triage resources to ensure they are congruent and working together to meet the needs of those who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

Tempe Police Department dispatchers also handle non-emergency calls.

“When you realize that you can play a pivotal role and be the voice of comfort, that means a lot,” Brennan said.

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