Flagstaff brings changes to local police

Flagstaff City Council gathers for a virtual work session Oct. 13.

Flagstaff will begin redirecting nonemergency 911 calls to crisis professionals and a mobile crisis response team starting in November, with more advanced policing alternatives discussed in the virtual city council meeting.

Flagstaff Deputy Chief Dan Musselman confirmed on Oct. 13 that Flagstaff Police Department (FPD) will expand work with the Crisis Response Network and Terros Mobile Crisis Response for nonemergent calls regarding mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.

The Crisis Response Network and Terros Crisis Response are 24/7 mobile crisis teams that use hotline phone services and assign crisis professionals to meet individuals at the scene. The Terros program includes personalized safety plans and follow-up appointments, which are complimentary.

Musselman said this is not the first time FPD has worked with Terros. 

“We usually wait until the officer gets there, and then the officer will see if it’s a crime issue or a mental health issue,” Musselman said.  “If it’s a mental health issue, they’ll call Terros.”

Starting Nov. 2, the process will be conducted differently. The new protocol begins with a person calling FPD dispatch, which proceeds to ask the individual if they are willing to talk to a trained crisis counselor. 

Musselman said the Crisis Response Network is able to handle roughly 70% of calls, but for the 30% that cannot be resolved by counselors, a Terros mobile response team comprised of two mental health professionals will be dispatched to meet the individual in need. 

“The goal here is to connect the client or the citizen with the most appropriate services,” Musselman said. “Keeping them safe and out of the justice system.” 

These new protocols are not the only policing alternatives pending in Flagstaff, and Musselman spoke to city council about several different models throughout the country that could be replicated locally. 

Musselman defined these alternative models as the practice of sending a paramedic, a mental health professional or a crisis specialist to nonemergency calls instead of a police officer. Additionally, one compromise is to send both types of professionals to the scene.

One specific alternative was the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program, a mobile crisis intervention team based in Oregon. Instead of being a formal law enforcement agency, CAHOOTS teams are composed of a nurse or emergency medical technician (EMT), along with an experienced crisis worker who responds to nonemergency and nonviolent crises. 

Musselman presented other options to the city council, such as the Anchorage Safety Patrol, a 24-hour service out of Alaska that cross-trains police officers as EMTs. The Denver STAR Program and the Crisis Preparations Recovery in Arizona were also addressed during the council meeting. 

These response models are intended to reduce the burden on the city’s police officers, who do not necessarily have the expertise to navigate complicated behavioral health or substance abuse situations, Musselman added. Additionally, he said the city of Flagstaff needs to expand these reforms beyond mobile response teams and into long-term resources. 

“We need to design an alternate response program that works for our community and has good after-care resources,” Musselman said. “Mental health, homelessness and poverty all impact our emergency services. Any alternate response model we get will not be successful unless we get some additional resource post-triage.” 

Musselman encouraged a detoxification center, a day center and a treatment center with Native American ties like the San Francisco Friendship House

Vice Mayor Adam Shimoni supported revamping the Flagstaff Fire Department’s 2014 Community Alternative Response Truck program (CART), in cooperation with Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) to provide wraparound health services for Flagstaff residents and specialized cultural healing centers for the local Indigenous community.   

Shimoni said a mobile response team under the CART model would include an EMT, firefighter and mental health social worker, while also acknowledging 911 calls are just one “piece of the puzzle.” In this regard, he outlined a four-part approach with the first component addressing how the city responds to these calls.

Included in this approach is a detoxification center for safe substance abuse recovery, as well as programs that provide housing and wraparound services for those in need and proactive efforts of mental health workers within the community. 

Ross Altenbaugh, executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services, commented publicly, along with two other virtual attendees.

Altenbaugh said any decisions regarding alternative policing programs should not be selected by city council alone, but also through citizen involvement and community organizations that have previously been left out of the discussion. One of the many practices to better support the people of Flagstaff, he added, is affordable and accessible housing. 

“Housing makes people healthier, and we should be putting our work and our engagement into housing solutions,”Altenbaugh said. “The work is bigger than diversion, and it’s bigger than budget lines.”

Councilmembers Charlie Odegaard and Jamie Whelan, in addition to Vice Mayor Shimoni, agreed affordable housing must be a priority in Flagstaff’s future. Mayor Coral Evans also said housing is an important issue that council has neglected in the past. 

“We are saying that the root issue is housing, and housing is health care, but every single time housing comes before this council, there isn’t a political will to do something meaningful and directly about it,” Evans said. 

She also spoke about the potential use of city-owned property to establish a more developed network of affordable housing. 

Council decided to continue the discussion about alternate policing programs during the next meeting Oct. 20, while also setting a one-month deadline for resolving the matter.