Law & Justice

Crisis responders offer an alternative to police

Alternative Response Team starts taking 911 calls in Bellingham
January 18, 2023 at 3:54 p.m.
Updated January 24, 2023 at 10:56 a.m.
Calls to 911 are being fielded by Bellingham's new Alternative Response Team when police are not needed. The program will help people experiencing homelessness and individuals in immediate crisis.
Calls to 911 are being fielded by Bellingham's new Alternative Response Team when police are not needed. The program will help people experiencing homelessness and individuals in immediate crisis. (Trenton Almgren-Davis/Cascadia Daily News)

By CDN Staff

When a Bellingham resident calls 911 to get help for someone in a behavioral health crisis, dispatch is now able to send someone other than a police officer. 

The Whatcom County Health Department launched the Alternative Response Team (ART) in Bellingham earlier this month, as a way to address the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness, or individuals who are unable to care for themselves during a moment of crisis.

“ART fills a gap in our mental health system, helping people in an immediate crisis situation when the most appropriate response to a 911 call is social services expertise rather than a law enforcement response,” said Malora Christensen, the Health Department’s response systems manager, in a Health Department news release. “If you call 911 because you see someone wearing shorts, no shoes and no jacket in the middle of winter, that would be an example of a situation ART would respond to.”

photo Whatcom County's GRACE and LEAD programs are considered longterm support (improving behavioral health through intensive case management) while the ART and Co-Responder programs address immediate needs (helping people in crisis in the moment). (Jaya Flanary/Cascadia Daily News)

When they are available, a behavioral health specialist and a public health nurse will take 911 calls seven days a week, when police aren’t needed. Police will continue to respond to violent situations, and Emergency Medical Services will maintain its response to life-threatening emergencies.

Some of the startup costs for ART came from a $2.2 million allocation from the state Legislature, at the behest of Rep. Alicia Rule of Blaine.

“I know that it’s been a real challenge getting help for people in crisis, and this innovative work that our law enforcement and behavioral health professionals are doing together is a timely and critical piece to keeping everyone in our community safe,” Rule said in the release.

The Bellingham and Whatcom County governments are also supporting the program, each budgeting $259,000 for ART in 2023. The county is using federal COVID-19 relief funding it received from the American Rescue Plan Act.

A similar program will launch outside Bellingham’s city limits later this winter. The Health Department and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office will coordinate the Co-Responder Program, sending a law enforcement officer and a behavioral health specialist together on calls when appropriate.

ART and the Co-Responder Program will complement the existing GRACE and LEAD programs in Whatcom County. The Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion programs provide longer-term support to people who frequently interact with the county’s medical and criminal justice systems.

Updated at 11:41 a.m. on Jan. 20 to correct an error in a news release used to report this story. The amount of state funding for the startup costs for Bellingham's Alternative Response Team was incorrect in a previous version of this story. The amount was $2.2 million, not $1.5 million. The Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.

This story was updated again at 10:56 a.m. on Jan. 24 with additional information about the Alternative Response Team's funding sources.

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