Health Metro Louisville

Mental health clinicians may soon respond to some 911 calls in Louisville instead of just the police. A group of mental health experts, including professors from Spalding University and University of Louisville, is designing an alternative 911 response program for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The program needs funding and the greenlight from Louisville Metro Government to proceed.

“We have a rich tradition in this country of criminalizing mental health issues,” Spalding University social work professor Shannon Cambron said.

When police respond to someone having a mental health crisis, the result is often incarceration, Cambron said.

“Say I’m in a really bad space, and I am at my wit’s end, and what pulls up in front of my house are blue lights and a police officer — there’s a very good chance that whatever space I’m in, I may escalate, because now someone sees me as a criminal, or now there’s a risk of something else happening to me,” she said.

911 alternate response models in other cities send health care professionals instead of police, or with police, to provide care and connect people with social services. One model the Louisville group is looking to is the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. In Eugene, calls involving mental health or crises such as substance abuse, self-harm or homelessness elicit a response from a medic and a trained crisis worker instead of or alongside police.

Cambron said mental health professionals have better tools than police officers to respond to certain calls.

“We de-escalate that situation, but we show that individual that they are valuable and important because we can then immediately start to connect them with services and resources as opposed to consequences and punishment,” she said.

In addition to university representatives, the group, called Diverse Options: Voice and Empowerment (DOVE), includes Seven Counties Services and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The team is gathering community input through a survey and focus groups before they settle on the details of the alternative response model, which will be presented this summer.

Cambron said a community organizer is seeking focus group participants who have had interactions with LMPD, “trying to elevate voices that oftentimes are not included in the mix in making these kinds of decisions and crafting models.”

Program organizers are asking Louisville Metro Council to include $2.9 million in the budget to start a pilot in one or two police districts this coming fiscal year. 

Those funds would go toward hiring several clinicians to respond to 911 calls 24 hours a day, and a crisis center where responders can take people who need immediate attention and care.

Louisville Metro Council allocated $231,000 to U of L in February to help cover the costs of designing the program. Much of that funding comes from forfeiture monies collected by LMPD.

The group received additional funding through a federal grant aimed at diverting people from incarceration.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.