By Nikki DeMentri | WRTV Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said a clinician-led pilot program to respond to mental health-related calls could begin early next year if the City-County Council approves the proposal in October.
Hogsett, Director of the Office of Public Health and Safety Lauren Rodriguez, City-County Councilor Crista Carlino, D-District 6 and Josh Riddick with Faith in Indiana discussed their plans during a press conference on Thursday.
The $2 million proposal would be included in the city’s 2023 budget if approved. It would allow for mental health clinicians and other experts to respond to calls and increase mental health expertise in the 911 dispatch center.
There were renewed calls for this type of program, including from Faith in Indiana, following the death of Herman Whitfield III.
Whitfield’s parents said their son was experiencing a mental health crisis when they called police for help in April. Whitfield, 39, died after he was tased while in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s custody.
Richard Waples, a lawyer representing Whitfield’s parents, said he believes this type of program shows city leaders are listening.
“Herman’s case is the perfect example of that,” Waples said. “If there had been such teams, if they had responded, they would’ve responded to it as a mental health crisis rather than a police call.”
Hogsett has previously announced his support for a clinician-led response to mental health calls.
Last month, representatives from the city and Faith in Indiana visited Denver, Colorado to learn more about the STAR program.
The Support Team Assisted Response program in Denver started operating in 2020. It sends a clinician and medic to non-violent mental health calls.
Benjamin Dunning, an organizer for the Denver group Homeless Out Loud who was involved in creating the STAR program, said it has eased the strain on the police department and public.
“The basic premise of not sending armed police officers to calls that could be handled better with people with different skills is awesome and we’re already seeing the results of that,” Dunning told Denver 7 (KMGH-TV) in February 2021, about eight months after the program launched.
The program started with a single van with a behavioral health clinician and an emergency medical technician. After 18 months, Rocky Mountain PBS reported that STAR is now growing to six vans staffed by 14 clinicians and medics.
Mobile Crisis Assistance Teams
Indianapolis in recent years has made strides in how police respond to people with mental health and addiction issues.
Since August 2017, the Mobile Crisis Assistance Team has seen great success in getting treatment for those with addiction or mental health issues instead of sending them to jail, Mayor Joe Hogsett previously said.
“This partnership has led to a 96% non-arrest rate, and that’s before we started expanding the program, scaling it up to cover all of Indianapolis,” Hogsett told clergy and community leaders at the Faith In Indiana “Fund our Futures” summit on March 8. “That’s progress.”
MCAT pairs a crisis clinician with a specially trained IMPD officer. There are nine such teams in the city, operating from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.
But MCAT isn’t good enough, critics said. Faith In Indiana is pushing hard for changes. A member of the group told WRTV they want mobile crisis teams that include a clinician and a “peer support specialist.”
“The peer support specialist is a community member that might have experience with addiction or mental health issues,” said Benjamin Tapper of Faith In Indiana. “They can really relate to the family members, or to the person experiencing their crisis.”
WRTV Senior Digital Content Producer Andrew Smith contributed to this report. WRTV Digital Reporter Vic Ryckaert contributed previous reporting.