City of Madison unveils program that will send specialists to non-violent mental health calls instead of police

MADISON, Wis. – Starting Monday, 911 dispatchers in Dane County will have the option to send a team of trained specialists to non-violent mental health calls instead of police.

Madison’s CARES (Community Alternative Response to Emergency Situations and Services) team will feature two paramedics from Madison Fire Department, as well as two representatives from the Journey Mental Health Facility in Madison.

If a mental health crisis is determined to be non-violent, dispatchers will have the opportunity to send the CARES team. Prior to Monday, those calls have been handled primarily by the Madison Police Department.

This has been a long, very personal and emotional project for everyone in the Madison Fire Department to get to the point where we’re here today,” said Madison Fire Department Chief Steve Davis. “As a former paramedic… there was always calls that we went on for mental and behavioral health type emergencies that fell outside of our protocols.”

Having this resource truly allows us to offer a more appropriate response to very specific needs,” said Luis Bixler of the Dane County 911 Emergency Center.

Prior to the pandemic, Dane County received more than 7,000 calls for mental health scenarios in a year’s time. Journey Mental Health Center says they saw roughly 4200 calls to their 24-hour line in the month of July. 

We have a lot of people that we’re responding to, who are experiencing mental health crises, generating a lot of calls for police service,” said Sarah Henrickson, who serves as a clinical team manager. “This presents another alternative for when someone is in crisis and calling 911, or someone is calling 911 for someone in crisis, that we have that other resource to send. We don’t rely entirely on police to be the ones to respond to those emergencies.”

Henrickson says while Madison Police have been integral to mental health crisis response through the department’s specialized unit, oftentimes even the presence of a well-trained officer can escalate a situation.

What an armed police officer represents to some people, and how that can escalate things or even be traumatic to some people,” Henrickson said. “Just the very idea of sending a police officer to a person who is in a  mental health crisis, where there are no crimes being committed and no critical safety concerns occurring, that in and of itself, no matter how trained the police officer is, can add to the stigma around mental health.”

Henrickson and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway both say they’d like to see the program grow.

We’ll learn. We’ll learn from the call center data, from the experience of the folks on the van, how things are starting to change in the community,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Hopefully this is addressing not only the volume of calls, but also some of the underlying issues that result in repeat calls.”

I think we’re quickly going to see how tip of the iceberg this team is in terms of responding to all the calls there are,” Henrickson said. “I think it’s going to result in many less people being conveyed to Emergency Rooms, or being arrested.”