Technology's role in policing and mental health

Author: Rachel Engel

The national conversation about mental health has evolved from a growing list of concerns with the U.S. Surgeon General issuing advisories such as Protecting Youth Mental Health and issuing a Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well‑Being.

With a shortage of mental health resources, it’s becoming more common to see a police response to mental health crisis incidents. When it comes to policing and mental health,  per the International Association of Chiefs of Police, "police agencies have been required to fill the void created by funding cuts in social and medical welfare systems, which often places police officers in an untenable position."

Mental health and police response: Another way?

In recent years, a number of cities have begun trialing different approaches seeking to prioritize the involvement of medical professionals, while also taking advantage of technological innovations. For example, New York City launched a pilot program in 2021 where both mental health professionals and paramedics responded to 911 mental health emergency calls for the first time ever.

The program is one of many currently underway that seek to provide alternatives to sending law enforcement to respond to emergency calls involving mental health or drug and alcohol crises. In 95% of cases, people accepted care from the team of mental health professionals and paramedics, compared with 82% for traditional 911 response teams, which include police.

Re-imagining the police response to mental health crisis incidents

-While these results are promising, the reality for American law enforcement is that they will continue to remain involved in mental health incidents. A recent study of 15.6 million 911 calls in nine cities found that nearly 20% are related to non-criminal mental and behavioral health concerns.

According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, when a police response to mental health crisis situations includes the cooperation of mental health professionals, there are fewer use-of-force incidents and fewer injuries to officers and residents. The research also found that cooperation between policing and mental health professionals led to increased use of crisis services, increased continuity of care, fewer arrests, lower recidivism rates and improved community relations.

There are several configurations of these programs that cities engage in:

  • Crisis intervention teams (CIT). These are specialized teams made up of officers who have received specific training to respond to mental health calls.
  • Co-responder team. These teams consist of officers and mental health crisis workers who have received special training to respond to mental health calls, often traveling in one vehicle.
  • Mobile crisis team. This is a team of mental health professionals used on mental health calls to help divert unnecessary arrests/emergency room visits.
  • Case management team. This is a team of behavioral health professionals that reach out to specific groups of people, such as repeat callers of emergency services, and connect them with available community resources.

Telehealth on scene

It is critical to connect individuals suffering a mental health crisis with professional services quickly. In Houston, Texas, a pilot program supported by Verizon equipped police deputies with iPads to utilize on calls related to mental health. The officer can connect the patient with behavioral health professionals for 20-minute "telepsychiatry appointments" while law enforcement is on the scene.

The visits typically end in one of three outcomes:

  1. The session deescalates the situation enough for police to leave.
  2. The mental health professional prescribes medication that can be picked up and brought to the patient by a first responder.
  3. The clinician recommends an in-patient admission and locates an available bed, cutting down on the time police spend looking for facilities with vacancies.  

The program was designed to decrease the length of police response to mental health crisis calls and reduce the number of arrests among those suffering mental health emergencies.

Early awareness in policing and mental health

Founded in partnership with the Autism Society of Minnesota, the Vitals app allows community members to voluntarily provide mental, behavioral and medical health information to first responders prior to calling for help, preventing escalation by giving officers information upfront.

The app can be downloaded to any smartphone where users can log information that might assist first responders in an emergency, such as official diagnoses, current medications and behavioral triggers. When a first responder comes within 80 feet or receives a call from someone who has used the app, they are alerted to view the individual's profile before engaging.

Better resources for first responders

Public safety officials can also benefit from better access to healthcare. Specially designed apps can give them the support and tools to handle and process dealing with a mental or behavioral health crisis and other incidents that can cause stress, pressure and trauma.

Recent developments such as the New York City trial show that when it comes to policing and mental health, connecting those who need help with those who can best provide it is likely to lead to better outcomes for all parties. Technology helps make that connection easier and faster.

Discover how Verizon Frontline is working with law enforcement and other public safety entities to strengthen the critical work of first responders.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.