Alternative to 911 for mental health in Miami

Directors of the Healing and Justice Center hold a team meeting at the organization's headquarters in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP)

Directors of the Healing and Justice Center hold a team meeting at the organization’s headquarters in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP)


As a large black van pulled into The Shoppes in Liberty City, Dr. Armen Henderson, megaphone in hand, poked his head through the slightly open door.

“Did you know that if you call the police during a mental health crisis, you are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed?” said Henderson, making many shoppers’ heads spin. “Instead, call us at 1-866-SAFE MIA.”

His stat comes from a 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center which, although seven years ago, according to Henderson, is still relevant because it focuses on one main issue which illustrates that the police are not not equipped to handle incidents involving mental illness. Henderson, along with fellow Freedom House Mobile Crisis team members Lesley Jackson and Al Muhammad, uses it to get attention.

A few onlookers approach the doors of the vehicle as it pulls up and listen to the trio talk about a new alternative to 911 that sends in a doctor, therapist, and conflict resolution specialist rather than an armed police officer. The program is a relatively new idea in the Miami area, where the team started in mid-May. Similar models in Eugene, Oregon and Dallas have been successful in saving police departments money and limiting the number of arrests.

“Really, we’re just here to help you,” said Jackson, a social worker and therapist. “There’s nothing wrong with getting help. It’s OK to not be OK. Everyone needs help sometimes.

Miami police call logs in 2021 showed about 1% were classified as violent under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. If other crimes such as domestic violence were included, the percentage would hardly increase. This 1% figure is in line with other cities with populations comparable to Miami. People with documented mental illness accounted for one-fifth of all fatal shootings involving police since 2015, according to the Washington Post.


The origin of the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program dates back to 1967. Disappointed with the quality of emergency medical care, a group of Black Pittsburgh residents formed Freedom House Ambulance Service, which was the first time that medical equipment and personnel trained were in the ambulance, setting the standard for modern emergency treatment.

“Our goal is to remain independent,” said Muhammad, a conflict resolution specialist. “It’s in the name: freedom.”

The program is funded by a $900,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation to the Dream Defenders’ Healing and Justice Center, a coalition of organizations including Dade County Street Response, Beyond the Bars and Circle of Brotherhood that provides a range of services free health clinics. to youth programs.

After months of planning, the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program kicked off May 17 and operates Tuesdays and Wednesdays within an 5 mile radius of Liberty City. Their goal is to get more funding for more teams and go to other areas of Miami.

“Hopefully we can operate 24/7 and we can do wellness checks, intrusions (incidents) and be able to respond to any calls in this area,” he said. said Jackson.

It also helps that many of these organizations in Miami have longstanding relationships with each other, added Henderson, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami.

“It’s the Dream Defenders project but it’s not like we can’t refer you to the Miami Workers Center if you’re about to be deported or Beyond the Bars if you have a relative in jail,” said Henderson said.

Less than a month into the program, Henderson, Jackson and Muhammad are still focused on airing the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program. They go from store to store in Wynwood, handing out flyers. Chat with passersby under the Black Lives Matter mural in Liberty City. Try to differentiate yourself from the police.

Yet people see the big black van and automatically assume they are police officers. That’s exactly what George Rodriguez thought when he flagged the vehicle down near his meeting spot under the Biscayne Boulevard underpass near Northwest 36th Street. A homeless man who wants to resume his career in the hospitality industry, Rodriguez received an onsite health assessment from Henderson and Jackson. The obvious mistrust began to fade when Rodriguez realized the team wasn’t law enforcement and said the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program and the Healing and Justice Center’s free clinic could be a stopover. useful in his journey.

“It can put me on the right track, health-wise,” Rodriguez said.

The team’s track record isn’t extensive – they only fielded one call from an older man who needed housing assistance more than a health check – but they expect May more calls come in as news spreads.

“Because of the distrust of the police, it will take time for people to understand what we are doing,” Henderson said.

The program mirrors other community initiatives like Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Oregon, that sprung up across the country because police officers weren’t “licensed medical professionals.” said Alexis Piquero, a criminologist and chair of sociology at the University of Miami.

“A lot of cities are experimenting with this kind of programs and I think it’s great,” added Piquero. “The more we can get the police and community members to team up, the better off we’ll all be. Crime and public safety is not just a police problem and it’s not just a community problem: it’s everyone’s problem and we all need to work together.

Launched in 1989, CAHOOTS responds to calls with two-person teams consisting of a medical professional and a crisis responder, both of whom have extensive mental health training. The group says its work over the past three decades has paid off, pointing out that in 2019 police back-up was needed in less than 1% of calls, helping the city of Eugene saving approximately $8.5 million in police expenditures. CAHOOTS has an annual budget of about $2.1 million compared to the $90 million spent for police departments in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, where the Community Response Team primarily operates.

Unlike CAHOOTS, the Freedom House Mobile Crisis team plans to have as little contact with the police as possible. This means no coordinated response efforts, no conversations about what tactics work best, and virtually no contact.

As the implementation of 988, the mental health equivalent of 911, looms, Henderson wants to make clear that such programs should be independent of law enforcement. He says cutting police spending by nearly $280 million from the City of Miami would be beneficial.

“When crisis teams are embedded in police departments, studies have shown that the care is inadequate,” Henderson added. Government funding would be welcome, he continued, but not at the expense of controlling police when and how they respond, especially in black communities. Henderson pointed to a study by Interrupting Criminalization that found co-response models — programs that send mental health professionals along with police — similar to CAHOOTS “prioritizes the central role of law enforcement” in appeals involving mental health.

“If people are already traumatized by the police to such a level, why would you send the police?” said Henderson. “In black communities, it just won’t work.”

An example is the murder of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old father with a history of mental illness. Wallace was shot in October 2020 by two Philadelphia police officers. Video footage showed him holding a knife and walking towards officers. He was told to drop the gun several times. But he was also going through a mental health crisis when officers fired more than a dozen shots at Wallace.

Should a similar situation arise, Henderson wants the police to be the absolute last response. Instead, he supports the training model of the Newark Community Street Team, a group of local residents whose policing of their own neighborhoods has led to a record high in homicides, and Aquil Basheer, an interventionist community that helps mediate peace between the Bloods and the Crips. gangs.

“Fundamentally, it’s about de-escalation: understanding why the person is upset, really understanding what they’re suffering from, and then identifying how to make a person feel safe,” Henderson said.

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