Madison leaders hope to change city’s 911 responses

Published: Jun. 30, 2020 at 9:36 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Some Madison leaders hope to change “how and who” responds to 911 calls, assessing which require a police presence.

Alder Arvina Martin of District 11 said she wants to help her community feel more comfortable calling 911.

“We want to make sure that individuals are getting the resources that they need and that we can divert from the criminal justice system,” Martin said.

Four city-county officials are taking the lead in exploring new policing options in Madison, acknowledging officer response isn't the right fit for every case.

“We have been looking at models all over the country and particularly interested in models used by Eugene, Oregon and Denver, Colorado,” Martin said.

During a crisis in which safety is not at risk, the solution may be an all-civilian response, like from the staff at Journey Mental Health Center.

“There’s no reason for law enforcement to be responding all of the time to these mental health calls if that’s not their area of expertise,” said Hannah Flanagan, clinical director of emergency services at Journey.

In fact, Journey already works with police in some of their intervention. Flanagan says that officers are necessary when individuals in mental health crises are a threat to themselves or others. But she also notes that individuals can feel triggered by officers in uniform.

“If things were already going on in my mind that were making me scared, to all of a sudden have law enforcement there, it’d be pretty terrifying,” Flanagan said. “The last thing that we want to do is have people that belong in hospital or mental health system getting treatment be in jail.”

Madison Police Captain Matt Tye responded to requests for comment on Wednesday, saying, “There are definitely times in which police officers and the police uniform can create additional anxiety for those in crisis.  We work to mitigate this to the extent possible.”

Adding, “there is always room to improve,” Tye explained that the department’s current model for mental health was developed “over the course of 30 years after careful collaboration with many community partners to include Journey Mental Health Center and NAMI Dane County.”

Tye also said he has worked with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s staff to examine alternative models of mental health responses. Citing the program in Oregon, he said, “It seems relevant to point out that in this program the police do still respond to certain 911 mental health calls, typically based on a dangerousness assessment.  Currently, roughly 10 percent of police calls have a mental health nexus, so the volume and need for services is substantial.  I would want to make sure that we invested robustly in this alternate model, so that it has the capacity to meet the needs of the community.”

NBC15 News reached out to Dane County’s 911 communications center for comments and heard back after the story aired. The director said he had nothing he wanted to add.

If there is a shift in 911 responses, Flanagan says there is a “good possibility” her organization is ready to take on an expanded role.

While the team of Madison alders and county supervisors continue their research into this model, Alder Martin says to look out for a detailed plan, most likely in the form of a resolution.

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