Two Years Later, Phoenix Fails to Expand Mental Health Crisis Response Program

Mayor Kate Gallego championed a $15 million expansion of the city's Community Assistance Program, though the effort has struggled to get off the ground.
Matt Hennie
Mayor Kate Gallego championed a $15 million expansion of the city's Community Assistance Program, though the effort has struggled to get off the ground.
In 2021, facing pressure from ongoing protests over policing in the city, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego promised a new, significant reform to the city's policing. Her plan? A $15 million expansion to the city's Community Assistance Program.

The cash injection was meant to turn the primarily volunteer-run inside the Phoenix Fire Department program into a full-fledged mental health crisis intervention team that could take and respond to calls on its own.

According to 2021 budget documents, nine new behavioral health units and 130 full-time city positions would be created to respond to 911 calls involving mental health crises. The city projected it would take 18 to 24 months to get the program up and running.

Yet almost two years after the program was announced, it remains desperately understaffed, and only one of the nine planned mental health intervention teams has hit the streets.
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Two years after Phoenix promised to expand a mental health intervention program, it hasn't even hired a quarter of the staff needed to run it.
Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons

Failure to Launch

CAP staff reported on the program’s lack of progress during a meeting of the City Council's Public Safety and Justice Subcommittee on February 21. To date, the program has hired 30 of the 130 full-time employees — just 23 percent of what is required for full implementation.

In July, city officials told Phoenix New Times that the program filled 22 of its positions — meaning that over the last seven months, only eight people have been hired. Additionally CAP operates only Sunday to Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., in two police precincts — Desert Horizon in Sunnyslope and Mountain View.

"We face challenges, like other departments and across the country, in hiring," D.C. Ernst, CAP's program administrator, told the subcommittee.

To help bolster staffing, Ernst and Deputy City Manager Ginger Spencer presented a recruitment strategy that includes new hiring incentives and weekly recruitment sessions. But as KJZZ reported on February 21, none of the outstanding caseworker positions in CAP were listed among the city's job openings.

When asked by Phoenix Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari about a timeline to fill the vacant positions, Spencer did not have a clear answer. "As far as timing to get the program fully up and running, it really depends on how quickly we are able to staff," Spencer said.

Dan Wilson, a city spokesperson, also was in the dark. "There isn’t any additional information beyond what was shared in the subcommittee meeting,” he told New Times in a statement.

Despite the prolonged failure to launch, Ansari called the program "probably one of the best votes and impactful decisions the council has made" and said she supported its work so far.

Right now, CAP is staffed by caseworkers, who are city employees, and peer support specialists, who are contractors with mental health-focused organizations such as Terros Health.

The program only responds to a narrow group of calls that are received by 911 dispatchers. To receive CAP assistance, the caller must request help or a welfare check for an individual in crisis who doesn't know that someone else is seeking help for them. If an individual has weapons, has engaged in any kind of violence, or has committed any crime, police must respond instead.

If an individual calls 911 directly, or if they are aware that someone is calling on their behalf, then Solari will respond. It's a separate mental health crisis response system that the city has contracted with since 2019. That system handles about 132 calls per week.

By contrast, the one operational CAP behavioral health unit responds to about five calls per week, sometimes on its own and sometimes in conjunction with police officers.
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The Phoenix Police Department is being investigated by the Department of Justice, in part, for its response to people experiencing mental health crises.
Matt Hennie

Activists Call for Urgency

When Gallego first proposed the CAP expansion, some local activists were skeptical. The Neighborhood-Organized Crisis Assistance Program pushed for the program to be housed in its own department, separate from the city police and fire departments. The group also demanded ongoing community oversight through a board or committee. Ultimately, the city kept CAP within the fire department.

Jacob Raiford, a lead organizer with NOCAP and an ACLU of Arizona board member, has been keeping a watchful eye on the program. "How are we still here two years later?" he said of the city's failure to properly staff CAP. It "shows a lack of honesty and a lack of intention," he added.

Raiford and other activists called for a program like CAP to help reduce police involvement in situations where people were dealing with mental health crises. They criticized the Phoenix Police Department's record in responding to such situations. One prong of the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the police department is the agency's treatment of people in crisis and with behavioral health issues.

So for Raiford, staffing CAP and getting the program on the streets — even if it falls short of what NOCAP envisioned — is an urgent matter. "People are going to continue to die because they're being met with unnecessary police intervention," Raiford said. He cited the example of Ali Osman, a man in crisis who was shot and killed by Phoenix police officers in September after he threw rocks at a patrol vehicle.

"Take this program, turn it into a department, fund it accordingly, and put it in the street with a steering committee – a community-driven steering committee," Raiford said. Citing recent police officer pay raises in excess of $10,000 and $20,000 a year, Raiford rejected the city's arguments that staffing was a challenge across city departments.

"We need to see some forward motion," he said.