Lawrence, Douglas County selected to participate in Harvard Kennedy School’s initiative on alternative emergency responses to 911 calls

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Bob Tryanski, Douglas County's director of behavioral health projects, outlines local efforts to provide alternative responses to 911 calls at the Lawrence City Commission's meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

Local law enforcement and behavioral health agencies for the next year will have the chance to improve and expand on efforts to provide alternative responses to 911 calls thanks to a new partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab.

The Government Performance Lab is an applied research and technical assistance organization based at Harvard University’s school of public policy and government that works closely with governments to build just and effective service systems. The City of Lawrence and Douglas County will both be participating, and the Lawrence metro area is one of 14 metro areas from across the country that have been selected to participate in the program for 2023-2024. Other cities in that group include Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Tucson, Ariz.

The organization has developed an alternative 911 emergency response initiative, which provides support to jurisdictions that are testing and demonstrating ways to launch or expand the use of unarmed emergency response teams that can be directly dispatched to 911 calls. That support is philanthropically funded and provided to the local governments at no cost. For being part of the initiative, the governments in those 14 metro areas get access to individualized coaching and a learning series on emerging practices in alternative response implementation from an even larger group of peer governments located across the country.

“The opportunity to work in Lawrence and Douglas County is a real privilege for us,” Yen Mai, a government innovation fellow with the Government Performance Lab, said at Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting. “I’m very excited to be working with a jurisdiction that really demonstrates how much can get done when all of these different agencies and governments are working together to serve and meet the needs of their community.”

The Government Performance Lab has been working collaboratively with Lawrence and Douglas County emergency response and behavioral health leaders for about two months, Mai said Tuesday, and plans to focus heavily on supporting emergency communications moving forward.

In terms of how that collaboration should look in the immediate future, Mai told commissioners the first goal is to sustain the local system and make sure as many people as possible are going through the alternative response process, which will be a focus through the end of October.

City leaders said Tuesday that they were excited about the collaboration’s potential. Commissioner Amber Sellers, for example, said she was pleased to see city and county partners moving “past the philosophical ideology” and advancing to actual collaboration.

“I think that we need to be reminded of that regularly and to share that with our community, because this is a monumental task and I’m excited that we have an opportunity to be a part of such a wonderful cohort and receive this technical assistance,” Sellers said. “I think it’s only going to strengthen the work that we’re doing.”

Bob Tryanski, Douglas County’s director of behavioral health projects, told commissioners that the core components of Douglas County’s crisis response system have really started to develop in the past year or so, starting with perhaps the most direct alternative to a 911 call responded to by police or paramedics. Lawrence-based Kansas Suicide Prevention Headquarters has taken thousands of calls since the national suicide and crisis lifeline switched to the three-digit 988 dialing code last summer, and the agency has simultaneously operated the Douglas County Crisis Line.

KSPHQ has, in turn, been able to dispatch calls from the Douglas County Crisis Line to Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s Mobile Crisis Response Team since last September. That initiative sends teams of therapists and case managers to assist people who call the 988 crisis line or whose calls have been forwarded from community partners and law enforcement officers.

Another piece of the puzzle is the Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County, the behavioral health crisis center which Bert Nash began operating at 1000 W. Second St. in April. That facility has its own dedicated process for accepting patients dropped off by officers, rather than those individuals ending up arrested or in the hospital emergency room.

The final component of the county’s system of alternative responses, Tryanski said, is pre- and post-crisis support. That’s manifested through things like the expansion of Bert Nash’s homeless outreach team and the agency’s assertive community treatment team, which offers 24/7 support for people who struggle with chronic serious mental illness.

“We’ve brought a number of components online, more pieces of the puzzle,” Tryanski said. “Our challenge now is how do we align and optimize those pieces so they function as smoothly and efficiently and effectively as possible? That’s going to take some work, and the reason we’re so grateful to have this opportunity with GPL is it gives us the opportunity to get some of the best, smartest people in the country helping us here in Douglas County and in the City of Lawrence to do the best work so that we really can deliver on that promise of the right care in the right place at the right time.”


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