City leaders looking into alternatives in mental health crisis response

Dane County Criminal Justice Council to work with MFD, Community Development

MADISON, Wis. – City leaders are looking into alternative ways of responding to emergencies after passing a mental health first responder pilot program resolution Tuesday night.

The resolution requests that the Dane County Criminal Justice Council work with the Madison Fire Department and Community Development Office to create a pilot program to better address mental health crises.

It’s in the beginning planning stages, according to District 11 Alder Arvina Martin, who said she wrote the resolution after Fire Chief Steven Davis originally approached her with the idea.

“Now just seemed to be a time where it makes sense,” Martin said.

According to the resolution, severe mental illness plays a role in a quarter to one-half of all fatal law enforcement encounters nationwide.

“We don’t need to have the police handle everything,” Martin said. “There are people who maybe it is one of their loved ones that’s experiencing one of those mental health crises, and they don’t want to call for help because they’re afraid that it’s going to be the police and there will be charges and they’ll be wrapped up in the criminal justice system. That thought is there regardless of how well-trained and empathetic that officer may be.”

Martin said mental health crises can require those responding to have a different skill set. The pilot program would aim to connect people who are not a physical threat with resources instead of the criminal justice system.

A MFD spokesperson said the department is in “the early brainstorm and planning phases,” which includes exploring models elsewhere, particularly a mobile crisis intervention program out of Eugene, Oregon called CAHOOTS.

Common Council members are looking at such programs, as well, to come up with the best plan for Madison.

“Some models have a paramedic and crisis mental health provider. Others have an EMT and social worker,” Martin said. “It will help address a lot of concerns that people have in the community of people being taken in (to jail) when they really need some kind of treatment or services, and we need to be thinking about that right now in particular.”

Martin said as they look into all options, there’s no set timeline. The resolution anticipates that the costs of developing the pilot program could be handled with existing resources. According to Martin, some cities have saved money with alternative responses to mental health crises.