A $2 million clinician-led response team is planned to be another piece of Mayor Joe Hogsett’s effort to improve the city’s responses to mental health emergencies, but some Republicans are concerned about sending mental health professionals into situations without police in tow.
Under the mayor’s budget proposal, Indianapolis clinicians and peer-support specialists would be paired together in 2023 to respond to calls that don’t require a police presence, with the goal of operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But Brian Mowery, head of the City-County Council’s Republican caucus, fears the program could put healthcare providers in dangerous situations they are unprepared to handle.
Funding for the program is widely expected to be approved by Hogsett’s fellow Democrats, who hold a supermajority on the City-County Council. And while the program would be new, it mirrors efforts of the Mobile Crisis Assistance Team, which was created in 2017.
MCAT uses Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers who volunteer to be part of the program, paired with Eskenazi Health clinicians and an EMT.
Lauren Rodriguez, head of the Office of Public Health and Safety, will lead the program. Prior to her time at OPHS, Rodriguez was a public defender. In that role, she said she saw that people with mental health issues or substance use disorder need to be handled with care.
Rodriguez said MCAT has been successful, but community discussions led the administration to realize that residents need more help than MCAT. Much of this discussion was led by Faith in Indiana, a not-for-profit that Hogsett cited as he outlined his $1.4 billion city budget proposal last week.
MCAT would continue to exist after the new program is created, Rodriguez said. The pair would act as sister programs, with the clinician-led program responding to situations that have been determined to be non-threatening.
For some people in distress, seeing a police officer is traumatic even when they are accompanied by a doctor, Rodriguez said. This is where the clinician-led team would be a better response than the MCAT program or a normal police dispatch.
Mowery acknowledged that mental health emergencies require a nuanced response but said safety issues could arise that health professionals aren’t prepared to deal with.
“I do have concerns of sending one of these people to respond to a call not fully knowing for sure how it’s going to go,” Mowery told IBJ. “The police are trained in many different ways to handle situations. They also have, you know, God forbid, they have weapons they can use if needed.”
Rodriguez said the program is modeled partially after the Denver Support Team Assisted Response—as well as similar programs in Chicago and Philadelphia. Next week, OPHS will visit the Denver program, which touts on its website that police have never been contacted to help with the program’s more than 2,000 calls.
An initial step toward the Indianapolis program’s proposed launch should help decrease the likelihood of clinicians arriving at scenes with dangerous or violent individuals, supporters say. Starting this year, a clinician will be at dispatch to decide if any additional training is needed for dispatchers to identify situations in which a clinician is necessary, or in which the MCAT would be helpful.
The proposed budget would fund startup costs for the program, including two clinicians and two peers.
Rodriguez said that finding clinicians for the program could be difficult due to a statewide shortage. But she said OPHS is having listening sessions with clinicians to ask what would make them want to be in the program. She said recruiting Black and brown clinicians is a priority.
This program and MCAT are part of a larger Hogsett administration effort to revamp the criminal justice system and deal more effectively with mental health issues. The initiative also included the creation of the Assessment and Intervention Center, which opened in 2020 on the Community Justice Campus. The center is voluntary, and provides short-term housing, withdrawal support and mental health screenings. It refers those who utilize it to long-term resources.
OPHS would run the new emergency response program, but discussions are ongoing regarding where the response team would be headquartered.
The OPHS will present the proposed budget to the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee on Aug. 31 at 5:30 p.m. The full City-County Council is expected to vote on the budget in October.