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Tacoma to get mental health response team in summer '23. Some say it should start sooner

News Tribune - 11/24/2022

Nov. 24—After a coalition of interests pushed the Tacoma City Council to fund a mental health crisis program, the council promised to make it a priority next year and look to provide additional money for the Tacoma Fire Department pilot.

As a part of the city's biennium budget passed Tuesday, the program will receive $824,000, the initial TFD ask, to implement an Alternative Response Unit Pilot The amount fell short of the coalition's ask of $2 million for a mental health crisis response team.

The unit would be staffed by people with behavioral health expertise, especially in deescalation techniques. It would respond to 911 calls of someone in a mental health crisis, instead of police who are not trained or equipped to respond to such crises. Advocates said the team could help provide those in crisis with help, such as mental health care, medication and housing. The unit could also help divert calls away from police.

Members of the coalition, which includes 350 Tacoma, Home in Tacoma for All, Tacoma & Pierce County Democratic Socialists of America and others, wrote a petition addressed to the council demanding $2 million in funding to support creation of a team. The coalition also requested the city deploy the team immediately instead of in late fall 2023.

"Tacoma is facing a crisis," the petition stated. "Lack of affordable housing, jobs, and mental health resources create barriers for people who seek stability. The obvious and humane solutions to these problems, namely providing those things people lack, are dismissed. Instead, city leaders and business owners keep investing in the police to solve these problems, leading to catastrophic results."

Mayor Victoria Woodards said she heard the desires for an alternative response.

"We are now asking police officers to do what we asked teachers to do," Woodards said. "Teachers signed up to teach. Police officers signed up to keep our cities safe. Now, they're being behavioral health specialists. We're asking them to deal with all kinds of issues that they're neither equipped for or trained to do. We 1,000 percent agree with you. They should be the ones going to behavioral health calls."

At-large Council member Kiara Daniels directed the city manager to provide updates on the alternative response programming, to include its effectiveness and funding needs to prepare for a budget adjustment next year.

Woodards said she worked with city staff to push up the launch of the program from late fall to early summer. Fire Chief Tory Green said in an interview that if the council is willing to fund the program, it could be stood up by the second quarter of 2023.

Daniels said the council missed the mark on how much the community wanted additional funding toward alternative response, but promised it will be a priority of hers.

Additional funding could come from re-appropriated American Rescue Plan Act money in the spring. Woodards said she would push for state and federal funding.

Some advocates expressed cautious optimism about the council's commitment to launching the pilot and voiced their appreciation of Daniel's ensuring accountability, though others said it fell short and said the funding should come from the police department's $216 million 2023-2024 budget.

The Alternative Response Unit would include seven positions. Hiring for a program manager will begin early next year to help build the unit. A high level medical provider will be hired, along with five other positions, including a registered nurse, behavioral health provider and case manager.

Green said the fire department recognizes that it needs to respond to 911 calls with the appropriate resources.

"It's good not only for the fire department, it's good for the police department because they're responding to these calls when they're not the appropriate resource for this," he said.

Green said the program implementation does not mean that there will never be a police officer on the scene of a mental health crisis.

The budget states the unit would respond to a patient in a mental health crisis when the circumstances indicate it would be safe to do so, or along with police and/or EMS personnel, when safety is a concern. When an assessment for possible involuntary commitment is required, the unit staff can request assistance from a designated crisis responder who will be with the Tacoma Police Department.

The fire department has a TFD CARES program, which was implemented in 2012 to identify members of the community who use the 911 system or emergency department for non-emergency or non-urgent call and connect them to their primary care providers, other health care professionals, low-cost medication programs and other social services. The Alternative Response Unit would be in addition to the TFD CARES program.

TFD attempted to launch a mental health crisis response pilot in 2021, but did not receive any applications for its seven open positions .Green said he doesn't have concerns about not being able to fill the unit's positions. He said the city's leaders have heard during the budget process that if you build it, they would come.


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