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McKees Rocks police first to join pilot program focusing on mental health

Updated: Sep 14, 2022


By Elizabeth Perry

McKees Rocks is participating in a county pilot program that could reduce arrests and create better outcomes for people with mental health issues.

As part of this program, mental health professionals would respond to calls initially placed to police in order to deal with people who would be better served by a social worker than a police officer.

McKees Rocks Borough Council voted to approve participation in the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Crisis Response and Prevention Pilot Program at the Sept. 13 council meeting unanimously.

Kate Vander Wiede, crisis response management project manager, addressed the council.

Vander Wiede said the group was working toward a system in which 911 would directly engage with her team, but initially, calls would be directed to them via the police.

The program would take about six months from proposal stage to implementation in the McKees Rocks area.

Vander Wiede said she had been seeking approval from the council before beginning the proposal process.

Council member Maryann Holland asked why McKees Rocks was being approached for this type of programming.

“I volunteered us,” said Chief Rick Deliman, explaining further that people call 911 out of a sense of desperation sometimes, because they don’t know who to contact to deal with a situation. Having trained mental health professionals instead of police responding to the call would often be more helpful in those situations.

Deliman said there have been times when his officers called resolve Crisis Services to take over a call and it took between three to four hours for help to arrive.

By that time, the situation had escalated unnecessarily.

All police chiefs in Allegheny County were asked to gauge their community’s interest in the program. Ten responded and McKees Rocks is the first local government to approve the program, according to Vander Wiede.

The goals of alternative intervention are to reduce unnecessary arrests, de-escalate potentially dangerous situations and reduce the amount of time officers spend in response.

Some instances where a mental health professional would be of better service than a police officer would be for suicidal callers or people who are being disruptive but pose no threat, Deliman said.

The mental health care professionals would go out two to a team and be on call for 12 hours a day.

The Department of Health and Services would be a third-party provider, not paid by the borough.

Vander Wiede said the county is working with the Harvard Kennedy School Performance Lab to investigate the impact of the alternative first responder program.

The Pittsburgh Police have implemented an alternative responder program through their own department. Other similar projects have begun in Olympia, Washington, Sacramento, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Orlando, Florida and New York City.

Many of these initiatives are so new, data is still being collected on their impact. However, the program in New York City, B-HEARD, the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistant Response Division, released promising information on the vast reduction in hospital trips alternative intervention facilitated.

During a typical six-month interval, 87% of calls of this type resulted in trips to the hospital, while 13% refused medical assistance. In contrast, those calls on which the B-HEARD team responded saw a variety of outcomes. Only 8% refused medical assistance, 28% were assisted on-site, 19% were transported to community-based care facilities and 46% were transported to the hospital.

San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Team was able to resolve 60% of crises on scene, with 15% being transported to a hospital and 6% turning into involuntary holds, according to Vander Wiede.

Currently, the project is being funded through the Department of Health and Human Services, but Jennifer Batterton, manager of special initiatives with the Department of Health and Human Services, said eventually they would like to fund the program through Medicaid.

UPDATE – This article was updated to correct the date this program was adopted. The final unanimous vote by McKees Rocks council occurred Sept. 13.


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