Walter Wallace Jr.

Policing and mental health: Experts call Philly’s new 911 script a good idea, but too long

Social workers, medical workers, former police officers, and crisis response professionals on the new PPD dispatch flowchart.

Community activist Isaac Gardner, shown here leading a march in October 2020, runs Unsolved Murders in Philly, one of the organizations in the new program

Community activist Isaac Gardner, shown here leading a march in October 2020, runs Unsolved Murders in Philly, one of the organizations in the new program

Emma Lee / WHYY
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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A month after Walter Wallace Jr. was killed by police in front of his home, the Philadelphia Police Department quietly rolled out a new script for 911 calls.

It starts with a question phone workers at the police dispatch center are supposed to ask every time they answer a call:

Are you or the person you are calling about experiencing problems with mental health, substance use or suffer from any developmental disabilities?

The idea is to avoid what happened when Wallace’s family called police in October. In the audio from three 911 calls, there was no mention that Wallace suffered from mental illness — but no one ever asked. When police arrived on the scene (without any behavioral health experts) a woman implored officers not to shoot, saying Wallace was “mental,” to no avail.

With the new script, police should be more aware if the emergency involves a mental health crisis, including everything from substance use, suicidal ideation, or other illness or disabilities.

The page-long script has undergone a few revisions since it was first implemented, according to PPD spokesperson ​Sgt. Eric Gripp.

The current version includes a flowchart with follow-up questions about whether the caller has a mental illness, and whether they’re able to communicate with others. Do they have access to a weapon? What about any urgent medical needs?

After gathering all the info, the phone operator is instructed to forward all the information to the dispatcher. “Note answers to questions in remarks, use appropriate CAD tags and request a supervisor and CIT officer be dispatched,” the script says. “Follow existing policy regarding notifications, documentation and deployment of resources.”

How much difference will the new script make?

Billy Penn asked experts from relevant fields to weigh in. We talked to therapists and social workers, medical professionals, former police officers, community advocates, and crisis responders.

For the most part, they all offered the same feedback: It’s good that the Philadelphia Police Department is taking these crises seriously — but the script is too long, which introduces the risk that the crisis will escalate before a responder arrives.

Ultimately, most said they wish the 911 dispatchers would just forward calls about mental health crises to Philadelphia’s mobile crisis response units to send out behavioral health professionals in lieu of police officers. Last week, Mayor Kenney pitched a major funding increase for those crisis response units — but it’s still unclear how they might get integrated.

Here’s what seven experts thought of the new 911 script for mental health crises. You can also read it yourself, below.

Coordinator of Engaging Males of Color, a DBHIDS mental health initiative

Gabriel Bryant
East Oak Lane

It’s better than what I’ve heard and seen in the past. My initial thought was, were these scripts acted out with a given scenario? It’s more so from a time perspective. From the point of contact on that call, to getting to the questions around suicide and having a weapon, how much time passed? A minute? Two minutes? We’re talking about a real life scenario. That time piece obviously could factor into a life being lost or not.

I’m also considering, oftentimes, the panic that people have in communities when they even have to make these calls. … I can imagine what tends to happen is this barrage of questions turns into even more of a traumatic experience, because they just want help right there.

Policy director at Amistad Law Project

Nikki Grant
West Philadelphia

Asking about access to weapons … I thought it was a strange question to ask. I don’t know what that means. Like, I don’t own a gun, but I have a house with a kitchen and I have kitchen knives. Does that mean I have access to a weapon, and it would be [just] police responding? … It’s very troubling to me.

I think what actually needs to be happening is they need a script that helps them understand what’s happening, and whether they should be dispatching or transferring to a mobile crisis hotline.

Former Philadelphia Police Department lieutenant

Russell Rice, retired in 1999 after 29 years
Clayton, NJ

The more information a policeman has, the better it is for the officer and for the individual being called about. But reading this, time is of the essence. Most of this would take too long. First of all, the person calling has got a problem. Whoever is calling, they have a problem and they have already lost control. The last thing they want to do is call the cops. They’re not going to stay on the phone and provide all this information. They’re going to say, ‘Please, get somebody over here now.’

I think you have to get right to the point. Whatever you can get out of the person is wonderful, but for the most part they’re going to get fed up. I know how that cycle is going to work.

Founder of wellness org Quadefy

Phillip Roundtree, therapist and social worker
Mayfair

My first initial thought was, why is a 911 caller having this conversation? … They should be able to transfer it, if it is mental health, to the Department of Behavioral Health. I know they have a crisis team, and we have community agencies. We should be actually getting the call to somebody who can really assess the need of what’s taking place. … In a perfect world this would get outsourced to the right people, and we would allow the 911 operator to handle medical emergencies or any type of threat taking place within a community.

Family nurse practitioner at The Family Practices & Counseling Network

Jennifer Schockemoehl
West Philadelphia

One of the main things I see missing here is sending out the crisis response team. It’s surprising that I don’t see that in the response… Trained emergency psychiatric providers should be responding to these emergencies.

If I was to write the script, my first question would be, ‘Are you experiencing a psychiatric emergency?’ If they answer yes, I would hope the person would say, ‘We are sending out a crisis response team to help you.’ After that, once they’re told that the appropriate professional is being sent out, they could then ask other follow-up questions. I think that knowing the right person is coming would help to de-escalate the situation.

Outpatient therapist at The Family Practice & Counseling Network

Nomi Teutsch, clinical social worker
West Philadelphia

It’s really important that de-escalation and validation are offered from the very first contact with the dispatcher. It really matters that that’s part of the training. Tone matters. How they’re relating to the person matters. … There should be at least one open-ended question asking, ‘What’s happening for you? What are you feeling? What are you experiencing?’ There’s no open-ended question here that lets the person define what their situation is.

Director of children’s outpatient program at The Consortium, a mobile crisis response center

Zyhkeya Waller
Mayfair

I thought it was too long. I think that when people are assisting someone in a crisis, their ability to really rationally go through these questions is probably going to be difficult because they feel as though they’re in an emergency crisis situation. I understand the need to probe a little deeper, but it was rather long and I thought it was unrealistic in an emergency situation.

They really need a mental health counselor or someone who is able to assess them at that moment, and then they can refer that person if they need medical attention or police assistance.