After a coalition of interests pushed the Tacoma City Council to fund a mental health crisis program, the council vowed to make it a priority next year and seek to provide additional funding for the project. Tacoma Fire Department pilot.
As part of the city’s biennial budget passed on Tuesday, the program will receive $824,000, TFD’s original request, to implement an Alternate Response Unit pilot project. The amount is less than the coalition’s request of $2 million for a mental health crisis response team.
The unit would be made up of people with expertise in behavioral health, particularly in de-escalation techniques. He would respond to 911 calls from someone in mental health crisis, instead of the police who are not trained or equipped to respond to such crises. Advocates said the team could help provide people in crisis with help, such as mental health care, medication and housing. The unit could also help divert police calls.
Members of the coalition, which includes 350 Tacoma, Home in Tacoma for All, Tacoma & Pierce County Democratic Socialists of America and others, have written a petition to the council asking for $2 million in funding to support the creation of ‘a team. The coalition also asked the city to deploy the team immediately instead of late fall 2023.
“Tacoma faces a crisis,” the petition read. “The lack of affordable housing, jobs and mental health resources creates barriers for people seeking stability. The obvious, humane solutions to these problems, namely providing what people lack, are rejected. Instead, city leaders and business owners continue to invest in policing to address these issues, with catastrophic results.
Mayor Victoria Woodards said she heard desires for an alternative response.
“We are now asking the police to do what we asked the teachers to do,” Woodards said. “Teachers signed up to teach. The police are committed to ensuring the safety of our cities. Now they are behavioral health specialists. We ask them to deal with all sorts of problems for which they are neither equipped nor trained. We 1000% agree with you. They should be the ones going on behavioral health calls.
General Council member Kiara Daniels asked the city manager to provide updates on the alternative response program, including its effectiveness and funding needs to prepare for a budget adjustment next year.
Woodards said she worked with city staff to expedite the program’s launch 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 in place by the second quarter of 2023.
Daniels said the council didn’t understand how much the community wanted additional funding for an alternative response, but promised it would be one of its priorities.
Additional funding could come from money reallocated from the American Rescue Plan Act in the spring. Woodards said she would push for state and federal funding.
Some advocates expressed cautious optimism about the board’s commitment to getting the pilot started and expressed appreciation for Daniel’s accountability, though others said it fell short and said that funding is expected to come from the police department’s $216 million budget for 2023-24.
The Alternative Intervention Unit would consist of seven positions. Hiring of a program manager will begin early next year to help build the unit. A senior 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 it needs to respond to 911 calls with the proper resources.
“It’s good not only for the fire department, it’s good for the police department because they’re responding to those calls when they’re not the proper resource for it,” he said.
Green said implementing the program doesn’t mean there will never be a police officer at the scene of a mental health crisis.
The budget states that the unit would respond to a patient in mental health crisis when circumstances indicate it would be safe to do so, or with police and/or EMS personnel, when safety is a concern. When an assessment of a possible involuntary engagement is required, unit personnel may seek the assistance of 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 the emergency service for non-emergency or non-emergency calls and connect them with their primary care providers, other health professionals. , low-cost drug programs and other social services. The Alternative Response Unit would complement the TFD CARES program.
TFD attempted to launch a mental health crisis response pilot in 2021, but received no applications for its seven vacancies. Green said he’s not worried about not being able to fill the unit’s positions. He said city leaders heard during the budget process that if you built it, they would come.
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