© 2022 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Columbus' unit of mental health 911 dispatchers are expanding service

Alverta Muhammad, a social worker on the 911 dispatcher Right Response Unit
Renee Fox
Alverta Muhammad, a social worker on the 911 dispatcher Right Response Unit.

A special unit of 911 dispatchers was formed in 2021 to divert mental health calls to social workers. The Columbus unit is expanding its hours this fall.

The dispatchers were brought on originally for just four hours Monday to Friday when the program started. That doubled to eight hours a day in February and will now expand to operate until midnight on weekdays.

In the first year of the Right Response Unit, 1,300 calls to 911 were diverted to the team of mental-health-trained dispatchers to connect callers with resources like mental health providers and social services. That’s about 10% of the total number of mental-health related 911 calls in 2021, and less than 1% of the total number of 911 calls in 2021, according to data provided by the Department of Public Safety.

The dispatchers were able to connect 25% of callers to mental health providers. Twelve arrests were logged during the 1,300 calls involving the unit, and none of the arrests were related to the reasons for the call. None of the calls involved the using police force against someone, according to Meriam Stuckey with the Columbus CARE Coalition.

"Crisis callers are given the time and attention that they need to work through the issue at hand. This sometimes takes hours and extended amounts of time to provide the de-escalation, community resources and emotional support,” Stuckey said.

A third of calls that were filtered through the Right Response Unit avoided the need for a police officer.

The program freed up police officers for 500 hours, and made their jobs easier when they did have to respond, Stuckey said.

“In nearly half of the cases where a police response was needed, we were able to work with the callers to verbally de-escalate before the situation before the officers arrived on the situation. These results are meaningful and promising,” she said.

That is why the program is expanding to more hours and will need to hire more workers, she said.

“We are actively seeking applicants who have a calling for crisis work. And I encourage any licensed mental health clinicians and professionals to apply who have an interest, you can join us in making a difference in the lives of the residents when they need us the most,” Stuckey said.

After the shift is staffed, officials will assess the program to see if it should expand into the weekend, said Glenn McEntyre, assistant director of the department of public safety.

A member of the Right Response Unit and a social worker, Alverta Muhammad said the team follows up on any calls that came through as a mental health crisis outside of the operating hours.

“We'll call back and say, ‘Hey, do you need any resources? We know it's the next day, but is there anything we can support you with?’ Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. But we always make sure to leave resources or phone numbers, so hopefully, no one falls through the cracks,” she said.

The calls are diverted to the team by a code dispatchers use, or people can reach the department directly by dialing the Columbus police non-emergency line at 614-645-4545 and selecting the Right Response Unit.

"When you have a mental health concern, it's one of the scariest times in your life. We've been able to stop people from harming themselves. We've connected folks with resources. And we also have freed up first responders because to be honest, they can't be everything to everyone,” Muhammad said.

She described some of the calls she’s had.

“Recently, I took a call from a man whose mother was having delusions that someone broke into their home and was hiding. She also had a gun and he was really afraid about that, and she wouldn't put it away. I was able to talk with him and her and eventually get her to give him the gun safely,” Muhammad said.

The unit works with the city’s Mobile Crisis Unit and other community partners, like Nationwide Childrens Hospital for kids in crisis.

Muhammad said the team helped a woman come back from the brink of suicide.

“Another family that I worked with illustrates just how important it is to have the time that is needed to support and build connections with families,” Muhammad said. “I took a call from a grandmother who was suicidal and was on the brink of ending her life. She felt frustrated and stuck. I was able to talk to her for around 90 minutes, validating her and helping her until first responders could get to her home. She was hospitalized. And she got the immediate help she needed and also sparing her grandchildren from getting off the bus and finding their loved one and caregiver tragically gone.”

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said the effort is one of several designed to reduce crime by offering “holistic” services and interventions.

"One lesson we've taken to heart in recent years is that we can't simply police our way out of violence that we're seeing. Our response needs to be comprehensive, leveraging the power of prevention, intervention, and enforcement to ensure the greatest possible impact,” Ginther said.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. Fox joined the WOSU newsroom from the Tribune Chronicle/Vindicator in the Youngstown area, where she’d been a reporter since 2014. Contact Renee at renee.fox@wosu.org.