Leaders push for clinician-led response to mental health emergencies

By Sarah Nelson | Indianapolis Star

Indianapolis leaders and community stakeholders on Thursday highlighted a proposal to include money for a pilot clinician-led emergency response program in the city’s proposed budget – an initiative at the heart of calls for reform following the death of Herman Whitfield III in police custody during a mental health crisis in April.  

Mayor Joe Hogsett, alongside representatives from the Office of Public Health and Safety, the City-County Council and Faith in Indiana, voiced their support of the program, which would require $2 million in the city’s proposed operating budget for 2023.  

The program and its budget still need approval from the full City-County Council in October. If it passes, the pilot is expected to begin next year and would include 24-hour coverage of teams made up of mental health clinicians and experts in a limited number of Indianapolis police districts who can respond to calls for nonviolent mental health help. The proposed budget item would also include money to increase mental health expertise at the 911 dispatch center.  

“This team would be equipped to provide meaningful support for those who in years past would have spent the length of their crisis in a jail cell,” Hogsett said. “This is because we recognize that police are not health care providers and our jails are not hospitals.”   

Rollout of a clinician-led program has been in talks in the city for a while, but demands for changes to mental health responses were renewed by several community members after 39-year-old Whitfield died at the hands of police on April 25. Whitfield was tased and handcuffed face-down by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police inside his parent’s home while suffering from an apparent mental health episode. By the time medics arrived, he was unresponsive.  

Local advocates in their calls for reform demanded a faster implementation of the clinician-led program and reiterated they do not want police officers to respond to certain mental health calls.  

The exact composition of the clinician-led teams, how many people the program will staff and what emergency calls they’d respond to are still being determined. The team would not replace the police department’s Mobile Crisis Assistant Teams (MCAT), which consist of an officer trained on crisis intervention and a clinician who respond to certain situations.  

MCAT, however, only operates on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., another point of contention among community advocates. Police on April 25 responded to Whitfield’s home at 3:20 a.m.

City and community leaders on Thursday said they’ve seen firsthand how effective a clinician-led response team can be after visiting Denver to review their city’s Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, program. That program pairs a mental health clinician with a paramedic or EMT who respond to lower-risk calls for help. They are dispatched by 911 call-takers trained to identify when a mental health professional is needed.  

“This is the first step in a beautiful vision of reimagining public safety,” said Josh Riddick, a community organizer for Faith in Indiana, which has spearheaded many of the conversations to implement such teams.  

In a statement, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department shared support for the program.  

“IMPD recognizes there are a number of 911 calls that do not involve criminal activity and/or where a police response is not necessary,” the statement read. “In these cases, a non-law enforcement approach may be more appropriate. We are hopeful a clinician-led response program will allow community members to receive the type of help they seek.”  

Contact Sarah Nelson at 317-503-7514 or sarah.nelson@indystar.com

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