Austin 911 adds fourth option for mental health services

Austin has become one of the first cities in the country to offer a fourth option to callers when dialing 911.

This month, 911 operators have begun asking if the caller needs police, fire, EMS, or mental health services. Those in need of mental health services will be transferred to an on-site health clinician.

According to a 2018 city audit of the 15 largest cities in America, the Austin Police Department ranked the highest per capita for fatal shootings involving people facing a mental health crisis. This fourth option for 911 callers is meant to finally curve that number.

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"Austin is going to be among the very first cities in the country where if you dial 911, you get the question Austin 911: Do you need police, fire, EMS, or mental health services?" said Greg Casar, City Council Member for District 4.

If selected, that fourth option for mental health services will connect the caller to a health clinician immediately.

"Our purpose is really to determine what is the best outcome for that individual in their moment of crisis," said Marissa Aguilar, Program Manager for the Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team.

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Aguilar is part of the program manager for the Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, the group that handles these calls. She says so far, 86% of the calls transferred over for mental health services have been resolved without the need for police.

"That's so beneficial for individuals in crisis because you have clinical experts going out for that assessment in unmarked vehicles and really focusing on that individual person, centered around care and getting them the most appropriate service during their crisis," said Aguilar.

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"It could have saved his life. Yeah, I think it could have saved his life," said attorney Brad Vinson, who represents the family of Dr. Mauris DeSilva. In 2019, Dr. DeSilva was suffering a mental health episode at the Spring Condominiums in Downtown Austin.

"There were witnesses that observed this mental health breakdown called the police. Specifically, 911 callers requested that mental health officers come to the scene. The dispatcher informed them that a mental health officer would be coming to the scene, but, as we later found out, a mental health officer did not come to the scene," said Vinson.

Dr. DeSilva was shot and killed that day by two Austin police officers. Vinson believes that the fourth option for mental health resources could have saved DeSilva’s life.

"I think that would have made all the difference in the world, having a mental health officer on the scene. They could have walked through this scenario. They could have realized immediately that Dr. DeSilva was not a threat to anyone else, except for himself," he said.

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Casar says this new feature is meant to save lives.

"This is a really important way for us to get the services we need to the community to rethink public safety and to avoid situations where you're sending an armed officer to an interaction that maybe, really would be safer for everyone if we had a mental health professional," said Casar.