New research uncovers the strongest evidence yet that dispatching mental health professionals instead of police officers in response to some 911 calls can have significant benefits.

The findings come as United States cities rethink the role of law enforcement in nonviolent 911 emergencies.

The study of a pilot 911 response program in Denver, in which mental health specialists responded to calls involving trespassing and other nonviolent events, finds a 34% drop in reported crimes during the six-month trial. The study by Stanford University scholars Thomas Dee and Jaymes Pyne also shows that the direct costs of the alternative 911 approach were four times lower than police-only responses.

“We provide strong, credible evidence that providing mental health support in targeted, nonviolent emergencies can result in a huge reduction in less serious crimes without increasing violent crimes,” says Dee, professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

“In our politically divisive times,” Dee says, “this first-responder innovation provides a rare opportunity for consensus on meaningfully improving public safety and health.”

The analysis, which appears in Science Advances, comes at a pivotal time in broader national discussions around the performance of police officers who often serve as first responders. Public attention to the challenges of providing humane and effective policing has increased dramatically since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in 2020 after a 911 call over an alleged counterfeit bill, as well as in the wake of concerns over the police responses to school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and, most recently, Uvalde, Texas.

This public discourse has also included growing awareness of the possibly counterproductive—and sometimes tragic—consequences of having police as the first responders to nonviolent situations involving individuals in mental-health or substance-abuse crises. Today, a small but growing number of cities around the country are piloting programs that embed mental health care and other social services in their first-responder procedures.

Read the full article about mental health crises at Futurity.