Jul 19, 2021

Important, foundational steps to reform 911 today bring us closer to much-needed systemic change and a safer way to find help when it’s needed.

The 911 emergency response system in Massachusetts is designed for health emergencies, fires, and criminal activity. In most cases it functions well for these purposes. However, in a mental health crisis, 911 remains the only option for many people. In these instances, the response often makes the situation worse. For example, a person in crisis might feel threatened or traumatized by the presence of police – many of whom do not have the de-escalation tools they need.

As a result, many encounters end with the use of force, too often leading to arrest, injury, and even death. Nearly half of people shot and killed by police in Massachusetts have a mental health condition, according to a 2016 Boston Globe investigation. Nationally, people with untreated mental health conditions are 16 times more likely than the general public to be killed by police.

The long-term solution is meaningful investment in behavioral health treatment and social supports, like housing, to prevent crisis and intervene early. Research and success stories tell us this investment should support a range of options such as the co-responder model, in which trained mental health providers respond with police to crisis calls. In addition, the time is now to make investments in the behavioral health system to provide alternatives to police response, such as sending trained mental health providers instead of police whenever possible.

A simple, important step the Commonwealth can take right now is to reform how we implement 911. Legislation currently under consideration would support communities in updating 911 protocols, scripts, and codes to better identify behavioral health crises. The bill also includes training for 911 dispatchers in crisis intervention and appropriate diversion, and establishing formal working agreements between Community Behavioral Health Centers’ crisis teams and 911 administrators. Importantly, the bill would also expand the state’s 911 Commission to include mental health professionals and people with lived experience.

Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley and Sen. Julian Cyr sponsored this 911 bill in the House and Senate, with oral testimony delivered in mid-June. Important, foundational steps to reform 911 today bring us closer to much-needed systemic change and a safer way to find help when it’s needed. For more information, please read our Bill Fact Sheet.

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