Tucson is close to launching a new way to deal with people who need mental health care, but who instead often wind up in jail.
Tucson Police Department is collaborating with mental health agencies to get those people the help they need, leaving officers to deal with crime.
The 24-hour crisis hotline at the Crisis Response Center in Tucson takes 350 phone calls per day from people who need help with a mental health issue.
Last year, Tucson police handled some 3,200 mental health-related calls, many of which had nothing to do with a crime, but the caller had nowhere else to turn.
Often with no other alternative, the officer would have no choice but to arrest the person, taking the officer off the street, costing the city money and at a personal cost to the individual who needed mental health care.
Tucson's mayor, along with police and hotline representatives, gave an update on their collaboration on a new program.
911 operators will be trained to either call for an officer or send the person to the crisis hotline for help because an officer is not needed.
"Let me make this clear: If you think you should call 911, you should still call 911," said Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. "We are not discouraging that. If you call 911, at that point an assessment will be made and the caller will be provided with the appropriate resource--whether that's a police officer or a transfer to the behavioral crisis line."
It's a combining of resources; the idea is to help everyone involved, from police to patients and the people who care about them.
"Roughly a third of our calls that involve mental health individuals can be siphoned off and sent over to the individuals who help them immediately and get them what they need and get them into services," Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor said. "And it allows us to keep our officers on the street."
"We'll also have a line at the crisis line to transfer back to the police department, so if something happens in the course of that conversation with the crisis specialist, they're able to transfer that call right back to us," said Sgt. Jim Kirk with the TPD Behavioral Sciences Unit.
The collaboration is seen as a creative and constructive way to deal with ever-tightening budgets.
"Mental health budgets in this country have been cut $5 billion since 2008," said Neal Cash, CEO of Community Partnership of Southern Arizona. "I think in light of that we've got to come up with these collaborative partnerships. We got to make better use and more efficient use of our resources."
Training 911 communications staff will begin in May. The program between the Tucson Police Department and the Crisis Response Center is expected to be up and running in July.
People needing mental health care also may call the Crisis Hotline in Tucson directly at 520-622-6000.