Many in mental crisis call Tucson police

Health agency to help TPD prioritize queries starting this summer
2013-04-14T00:00:00Z 2013-04-16T08:13:04Z Many in mental crisis call Tucson policeDarren DaRonco and Carli Brosseau Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tucson Police Department receives more calls about mental illness than about burglaries or stolen cars.

In March, the department received 369 calls about mental illness - more than 10 a day - and the numbers have been increasing over the past three years.

"Our Police Department has become the social safety net in our community," Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said.

Calls that were not directly related to a crime, but rather to family or personal stress, made up about 18 percent of the calls police responded to from January 2010 to July 2012, a Star analysis shows.

Calls pertaining to a threat of suicide or a family fight have especially been on the rise. March's figure was 40 percent higher than the same month three years ago.

The situation prompted TPD analysts to scrutinize call data. Of the 85 mental-health calls received in the week the analysts studied, more than a third did not require a police response, Chief Roberto Villaseñor said. It's not that the people at the center of those calls didn't need help, he said, but they weren't an imminent threat to themselves or others.

"If we're doing 20 to 30 of those calls a week, it adds up quickly," he said. "But people don't have anywhere else to turn to."

The realization prompted TPD to forge a new relationship with the Crisis Response Network, the county's primary agency for mental-health crisis services.

Starting in June, city emergency dispatchers will begin asking questions to determine whether a call warrants dispatching an officer. If not, the call will be routed to the Crisis Response Network.

"Some people need detox, some people need to be observed for a longer period and some need a referral to an evaluating hospital," said Janet Fuhriman, the network's chief clinical officer.

When a person arrives, he or she is treated by a crisis counselor, psychiatrist and a nurse, if medical care is necessary. The patient is then directed to the proper care facilities or discharged.

The network's CEO, Suzanne Rabideau, said the collaboration will put Tucson's mental-health services at the vanguard. TPD "is a part of that trend-setting of what others are slowly beginning to do around the nation," she said.

While the level of cooperation between the agencies is set to deepen, their interaction is not new. The agency's Crisis Response Center, which opened in August 2011, was built with a special secured entryway for law enforcement to drop off patients quickly. Rabideau said TPD drops off 10 to 15 people per day, and officers request the network's mobile crisis unit daily.

As calls to police have risen, so have calls to the Crisis Response Center. It gets 10,000 to 12,000 calls a month, many from concerned friends and family.

Some of that is due to growing awareness of its services. Also, people in areas that suffer a traumatic event, such as the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting, are more likely to seek mental-health services. Calls spiked after the Sandy Hook tragedy, she said.

Advocates for mental-health services - notably Clark Romans, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness in Southern Arizona - suspect the increase in calls to police has a lot to do with the elimination of Medicaid funding for childless adults the state Legislature approved two years ago.

Many people who used to receive mental-health treatment paid for by Medicaid now rely on local emergency services when they have a mental health crisis, he said.

"The legislators who think they've saved money should come down ... and look at how many 911 calls come to the Tucson Police Department or the University (of Arizona) police department or Sahuarita," Romans said. "They're bankrupting all the citizens around the state by these kind of ultra-high-cost services."

TPD's shift in how it deals with mental health calls reflects a nationwide trend. The International Association of Chiefs of Police held a conference in 2009 to talk about law enforcement's response to people with mental illness. Since then, departments across the country have begun training officers to prevent situations from escalating into violence.

Pima County Sheriff's Department spokesman Deputy Tom Peine is among those who have gone through the training, which instructs officers to avoid pulling their weapons or shouting. They're taught to repeatedly show their badges and repeat that they are police and not there to harm anyone.

"Hopefully it prevents people from spinning out of control," he said.

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at cbrosseau@azstarnet.com or 573-4197. On Twitter @carlibrosseau

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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