City, County expand support for behavioral health aid through emergency services

GRACE program provides mental health professionals as an alternative response to 911 calls


When a Whatcom County resident calls 911 for a behavioral health problem, it may not be only a police officer who responds. The city and county are expanding a program that provide teams of mental health professionals to accompany police on 911 calls.

The Bellingham City Council voted on April 26 to expand its partnership with the Ground Level and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) program, which has been working with police to provide this service. Next, the program will grow alternative response teams, so police may not even be part of the response. People calling 911 with a behavioral health crisis would get a response from a behavioral health professional and an EMT.

The city and county have worked with GRACE since 2018. Having behavioral health professionals involved in emergency response was a big first step and the program overall could be a “game changer” for the community, according to Council Member Daniel Hammill.

Sometimes people call 911 even when there isn’t a crime in process or a real reason for police to respond, said Anne Deacon, GRACE human services manager.

People could be hesitant to call 911 due to behavioral issues and may be quicker to call if they know an officer won’t be involved, Council Member Hollie Huthman suggested in the discussion at the afternoon committee meeting.

People may be hesitant to call not because of first-hand experience, but because officer involved calls are seen across the country of excessive force, Huthman commented in a later interview.

Prevention, intervention, treatment and aftercare (PITA) must be done to get individuals the proper care, according to Hammill.

“How many of the folks who have been shot by police were experiencing a behavioral health crisis? If we can provide PITA, maybe we could change the number of police involved shootings,” Hammill said.

There are times when a uniformed officer being present can be triggering because of bias against police which could negatively impact the encounter, according to Deacon.

Similarly to Deacon, Huthman suggested that there could be a potential influence when a uniformed officer is involved in these calls.

Deacon also pointed out that Bellingham has many officers who are very gifted in deescalating people and showing sympathy, sensitivity and kindness. The concern lies when this isn’t the case, what are the possible impacts?

It’s about safety on both sides and in the end the city needs to provide better and safer patient outcomes for people who are suffering, according to Hammill.

According to Deacon, there are instances where people with mental health distress can become dangerous and that is where a uniformed officer is needed.

“Sometimes people believe behavioral health professionals have some kind of magic because of their education where they can de-escalate somebody or create a positive outcome for someone who is expressing psychological distress,” Deacon said.

In recent data gathered, less than 4% of 911 calls with law enforcement start as behavioral health related issues are coded by law enforcement at the end as behavioral health related issues.

Concern expressed by the council at the discussion on April 26 included asking how many of those calls, if the right team had responded, would have been behavioral health only related from beginning to end?

“I want people to have reasonable expectations. This isn’t going to fix everything,” Deacon said. “But safety is the very top priority and always should be.”

After a few months pass and more field data has been collected about the effectiveness of the teams responding to 911 call, the City Council plants to readdress the program and decided what could be changed and what the next step will look like.