October 20, 2021 kicked off the first day of the national Taking The Call conference, bringing together key leaders from the criminal justice and behavioral health worlds to explore how communities can create more comprehensive crisis systems. This first-of-its-kind conference featured top experts from law enforcement, behavioral and mental health, academia, crisis response systems, and federal and state agencies.
Much of the focus was on the challenges and opportunities of innovative community responder models, which deploy behavioral health professionals and trained community members as first responders to calls for service. These responses can help reduce law enforcement contact and connect people in need to appropriate health services.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland led the conference with opening remarks, as he spoke about how community responder programs represent a unique opportunity to promote community health and wellbeing. He stated that too often, police officers are the first ones called when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, which can lead to challenging interactions.
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta also delivered a statement, where she discussed how building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve is a cornerstone of public safety, and that we have a collective responsibility to care for those in crisis and in need of treatment.
The kick-off plenary session featured Dr. Debra Pinals from the University of Michigan, Chief Gordon Ramsay from Wichita Police Department, and Tim Black and Aqeela Sherrills from community responder programs Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets (CAHOOTS) and the Newark Community Street Team, respectively. These speakers discussed the importance of creating continuity of care systems, why it’s important to engage – and even employ – people who have lived experience with behavioral health and criminal justice systems, and how to build support and relationships with law enforcement.
Breakout sessions during the afternoon focused on a wide variety of issues, including how to create and maintain meaningful engagement with community members; the role of 911 systems in improving crisis care; how to fund community responder programs; and best practices for engaging and partnering with police officers.
To wrap up the day Kristina Rose, director of the DOJ Office for Victims of Crime, ended the conference with an important reminder: “Victims count, and their voices matter.” She stressed the importance of involving victims and survivors of crime in conversations about community responder programs, noting that many victims are supportive of a criminal justice system that focuses more on rehabilitation than punishment.
Taking the Call is presented by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office of Justice Programs, The Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the University of Cincinnati. The national conference is free and open to the public; pre-registration is required. A detailed agenda of conference sessions, panelists, and keynote speakers is available on the conference website, takingthecall.csgjusticecenter.org/.
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