Anchorage to fund new team of mental health first responders

·2 min read

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The 2021 operating budget passed by the Anchorage Assembly includes funding for a city Mobile Crisis Team, which advocates characterize as mental health first responders.

The city will use money from an alcohol tax to fund the response team that can take the place of police officers when responding to people with mental health issues.

First responders trained in mental health will be dispatched to situations for which police are not trained.

The Mobile Crisis Team will provide a tailored response for each person while limiting situations that could result in violent interactions between police and the public, officials said.

Police responses to calls for people experiencing mental health crisis often result in jail incarceration or detainment in a hospital psychiatric unit. Those can be traumatic experiences and not necessarily the correct response, Anchorage Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel said.

Zaletel, one of the measure's sponsors, said the new approach will better suit the needs of those in crisis while easing the burden on the Anchorage Police Department.

“Instead of a police officer, in an instance of crisis that seems more behavioural health-related, we send a paramedic and a behavioural health clinician,” Zaletel said.

Zaletel, a mental health law attorney who championed the idea along with Assemblymen Chris Constant and Forrest Dunbar and Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson, called the team a “fundamental shift” to the response system.

The team will operate through the Anchorage Fire Department. Michael Riley, an Anchorage firefighter and paramedic, said those needing assistance beyond deescalation of the situation and referral to appropriate services would be transported for emergency medical or psychiatric care.

The police will likely still be called to situations involving violence, Riley said.

“At first, it’s going to be a very conservative group of calls that we’re going to go on,” Riley said. “As we kind of learn the system, we kind of learn the calls, as the community kind of catches up.”

The Anchorage Police Department issued a statement expressing support for the response team.

“This is an important step forward for our community in meeting the needs of those in crisis,” Deputy Chief Kenneth McCoy said in the statement. “We intently studied communities in the Lower 48 who were using the Mobile Crisis Team model and are pleased to see this first step in addressing the need.”

The Associated Press