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Re-imagining public safety: Leaders discuss whether police should respond to mental health emergencies

Posted at 5:09 PM, Jul 30, 2021

MILWAUKEE — Re-imagining public safety was the goal of a panel discussion Friday with Milwaukee Acting Police Chief Jeffrey Norman, Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, and Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division Administrator Mike Lappen.

Among the questions: should Milwaukee police respond to all 911 calls? And, if Milwaukee police stop responding to certain non-emergency calls, who will?

There are various arguments in favor of sending a trained person or group to respond to 911 calls involving non-violent situations, or mental health emergencies, rather than an armed officer. But that will require some big changes.

Milwaukee police respond to more than 250,000 calls for service every year. At least 30 percent of those calls are for low-level issues, like property damage, noise complaints, and theft. That’s according to data compiled by MPD.

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As an example, Alderwoman Chantia Lewis shared the fact that hazardous debris in roadways was the source of more than 5,000 calls to MPD in 2020.

Lewis says that’s not the most effective use of police resources.

“Should police be the ones responding to these kinds of things?” Lewis asked. “Is there a way for us to better leverage resources to let police do the work they’re supposed to do? Not defund police but reallocate resources and roles.”

A growing part of police work, according to Acting Police Chief Norman, is responding to mental health issues. He says MPD officers respond to an average of about 8,000 calls related to mental health issues every year.

“That number doesn’t take into consideration other things like welfare checks, troubled subjects, situations where there might be an underlying mental health crisis,” Norman said.

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“We have essentially asked police to be the health care worker and the social worker,” Lewis said. “These roles that police are not specifically trained to handle. Many local families have expressed concern about this.”

Mike Lappen, the head of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, says there are specialized therapist teams in place to respond alone or with police, to real-time mental health emergencies

“We have been actively working to boost our services and reach,” Lappen said. “We are doubling our crisis teams, and trying to fill overnight shifts, we’ve increased our partnership with community health organizations, and we’re moving our mental health emergency department to the heart of the city by the end of this year. Still, many people don’t think to call us at 2-1-1. We’re trying to change that.”

While 2-1-1 is an option for real-time mental-health resources and emergencies, most people and families immediately dial 911.

“It’d be tough to put a 911 operator in a position where they have to decide what is really a life-threatening emergency to dispatch police or to dispatch other groups accordingly,” Lappen said. “What we really have to work on is reaching people and families who are in crisis, before that 911 call even has to happen.”

A task force made up of local leaders and citizens will spend the next 12 months looking into this issue. They plan to brainstorm possible changes, solutions, and resources. All of the meetings will be public.

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