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New 911 initiative would send health professionals instead of police for some emergencies in Louisville

Depending on the emergency, professionals other than police officers would answer the call especially if it involves mental health illness.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Calling 911 in Louisville could soon mean police officers won't be the only ones responding.

A new initiative recommends sending social or mental health professionals rather than just law enforcement to emergency calls such as mental health cases.

A team of researchers from Spalding University, UofL and other organizations are studying ways to create an alternative emergency response model to improve public safety.

"We have a rich tradition in this country of criminalizing mental health issues," Spalding School of Social Work chair Dr. Shannon Cambron said. "Let's say I'm in a really bad space and I am at my wit's end and what pulls up in front of my house are blue lights and a police officer - there's a very good chance that whatever space I'm in, I may escalate because now someone sees me as a criminal."

Public Health and Information Sciences assistant professor at UofL Dr. Susan Buchino says a social worker can provide other options to calls involving mental health illness.  

"So for example there is a person at a park bench with his head down," Buchino said illustrating an example when a professional other than police would be best equipped to respond. "A concerned person driving by calls 911 to say there's someone who might be in crisis, might be homeless, might be overdosed."

Buchino says mental health professionals can help link people in a crisis to the resources they need.

"An officer does not have those tools there's nothing to arrest," she said. 

Researchers are working with Louisville residents to learn about their experiences and to come up with recommendations for the pilot program. They're also studying similar models from other cities like Eugene, Oregon where a community-based public safety system was developed 31 years ago to help people experiencing, mental health illness, homelessness or addiction. 

Louisville's pilot program could launch as soon as 2022. A report will be presented this summer to Louisville Metro Government. 

The city's budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year has $2.9 million available to help fund the program. 

Contact reporter Senait Gebregiorgis at SGebregior@whas11.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. 

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