Olympia’s crisis response team coming in January: ‘Our goal is to divert people from jail’

More than a year after Olympia voters approved a public safety levy to address conditions in downtown Olympia, the city’s new crisis response team is preparing to launch in January.

The Crisis Response Unit, or CRU, will be made up of nurses and behavioral health specialists who will respond to certain 911 calls — incidents such as mental disturbances or intoxication — that aren’t always appropriate for police and fire crews.

CRU staff will be trained to de-escalate situations and could provide counseling, mediation, first aid or referrals to urgent care, treatment centers or social service providers, said Anne Larsen, Olympia police’s outreach services coordinator.

“I tell people all the time that our goal is to divert people from jail and the hospital,” Larsen told the Olympia City Council this week. “Right now if you call 911 and you have a first responder (come) and you go away in a vehicle, you’re going to go to jail or the hospital. So our goal is to divert folks.”

The property tax increase, passed in November 2017, gives Olympia Police Department about $2.8 million a year to pay for its downtown walking patrol, neighborhood liaisons and officer training, in addition to the crisis response team.

The city has contracted with Arizona-based Recovery Innovations International, which specializes in crisis response and has treatment centers in Fife and Lakewood, to run the CRU. The program’s 2019 budget is $497,000, plus $110,100 in start-up costs this year.

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At first the CRU will work primarily downtown, getting to know people who live and work in the area, along with police and service providers. Sometime next year, it will start being sent to calls by the county’s 911 dispatchers.

Larsen said right now, police are often called to respond to people with mental health disorders, substance abuse and other disorders but may not have the proper training for those calls. In a survey this summer by OPD, 60 percent of officers and staff said mental health counseling was the most immediate need for people in crisis.

Police often encounter the same people, so-called “high utilizers,” of emergency services. In the survey, nearly 42 percent said they encountered the same person in crisis 15 or more times a month.

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The city is rolling out a grant-funded program to match high utilizers with peer navigators to help them connect with health and treatment providers, housing and other support services.

The city received a state grant for $106,000 through June and contracted with Catholic Community Services to staff the program. Two navigators have been assigned about 20 clients who were recommended by police and city staff who work downtown.

Larsen said there will be some overlap between the navigators and CRU staff, but the goal is for the navigators to help their clients connect with the services they need to avoid a crisis.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869