In Miami, an alternative to 911 for mental health crises

Community organizers hope a new approach will save police departments money, reduce arrest numbers and get people the care they need.
Members of the Healing and Justice Center stand in front of the Freedom House Mobile Crisis Response and Free Urgent Care van in Liberty City.
Members of the Healing and Justice Center stand in front of the Freedom House Mobile Crisis Response and Free Urgent Care van in Liberty City. [ DANIEL A. VARELA | Miami Herald ]
Published June 19, 2022

MIAMI — As a large black van pulled into The Shoppes at Liberty City, Dr. Armen Henderson, megaphone in hand, poked his head out of the slightly open door.

“Did you know if you call the police during a mental health crisis, you are 16 times more like to be shot and killed?” Henderson said, turning the heads of many shoppers. “Instead, call us at 1-866-SAFE MIA.”

His statistic is from a Treatment Advocacy Center 2015 report which, despite being from seven years ago, Henderson says is still relevant because it centers on one main issue that illustrates police aren’t equipped to handle incidents involving mental illness. Henderson, along with fellow Freedom House Mobile Crisis team members Lesley Jackson and Al Muhammad, uses it to draw attention.

A few curious individuals approach the vehicle’s doors when it parks and listen to the trio talk about a new 911 alternative that sends out a doctor, therapist and conflict resolution specialist rather than an armed police officer. The program is a relatively novel idea in the Miami area, where the team began in mid-May. Similar models in Eugene, Ore., and Dallas have seen success in saving police departments money and limiting arrest numbers.

“Really, we’re just here to help,” said Jackson, a social worker and therapist. “It’s OK to get help. It’s OK to not be OK. Everyone needs help sometimes.”

Miami police 2021 call logs showed that roughly 1% qualified as violent as defined by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. If other crimes such as domestic violence were included then the percentage would barely increase. That 1% figure matches that of other cities with populations comparable to Miami. People with documented mental illness comprised one-fifth of all police-involved fatal shootings since 2015, according to The Washington Post.


The origin of the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program can be traced back to 1967. Disappointed by the quality of emergency medical care, a group of Black Pittsburgh residents formed Freedom House Ambulance Service, which was the first time medical equipment and trained personnel were in the ambulance, setting the standard for modern emergency treatment.

“Our objective is to stay independent,” said Muhammad, a conflict resolution specialist. “It’s in the name: freedom.”

The program is funded by a $900,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation to the Dream Defenders’ Healing and Justice Center, a coalition of organizations including Dade County Street Response, Beyond the Bars and Circle of Brotherhood that provides an array of services from free health clinics to youth programs.

After months of planning, the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program began May 17 and operates Tuesdays and Wednesdays within a 5-mile radius of Liberty City. Their goal is to get more funding for several teams and go to other areas in Miami.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“I hope that we’re able to run 24/7 and we’re able to do welfare checks, trespassing (incidents), and be able to answer all the calls in this area,” Jackson said.

It also helps that many of these organizations in Miami have long established relationships with one another, added Henderson, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami.

“This is Dream Defenders project but it’s not like we can’t refer you the Miami Workers Center if you’re about to be evicted or Beyond the Bars if you have a relative in jail,” said Henderson.

Less than a month into the program, Henderson, Jackson and Muhammad are still focused on spreading the word about the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program. They go store-to-store in Wynwood, handing out fliers. Talk with passersby beneath the Black Lives Matter mural in Liberty City. Try to differentiate themselves from the police.

Still, people see the large black van and automatically assume they’re police. That’s exactly what George Rodriguez thought as he flagged the vehicle down near his hangout spot underneath the Biscayne Boulevard underpass near Northwest 36th Street. A homeless individual who wants to get back into his career in hospitality, Rodriguez received an on-the-spot health evaluation from Henderson and Jackson. The clear distrust began to fade as Rodriguez realized the team was not law enforcement, and said the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program and the Healing and Justice Center’s free clinic could be a helpful step in his journey.

“It can get me on the right track, health-wise,” Rodriguez said.

The team’s track record isn’t extensive — they’ve only responded to one call from an older man who was more in need of housing assistance than a check-up — but they expect more calls to come as word spreads.

“Because of the distrust of police, it’s going to take time for people to understand what we’re doing,” Henderson said.

The program mirrors other community-based initiatives like Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Ore., that have sprung up across the country due to police officers not being “licensed health professionals,” said Alexis Piquero, a criminologist and chair of sociology at the University of Miami.

“A lot of cities are experimenting with these kind of programs and I think it’s great,” Piquero added. “The more we can have police and community members partner together, the better off we all will be. Crime and public safety is not only a police issue and it’s not only a community issue: it’s everybody’s issue and we all have to work together.”

Launched in 1989, CAHOOTS responds to calls with two-person teams comprised of a medical professional and a crisis worker, both of whom have extensive training in the field of mental health. The group says its work over the past three decades has been very cost efficient, pointing out that in 2019, police backup was needed in less than 1% of the calls, thereby saving the city of Eugene roughly $8.5 million in police spending. CAHOOTS has an annual budget of roughly $2.1 million compared with the $90 million spent on the police departments in Eugene and Springfield, Ore., where the community-based response team primarily operates.

Unlike CAHOOTS, the Freedom House Mobile Crisis team plans to have as little contact with police as possible. That means no coordinating response efforts, no conversations over whose tactics work best and virtually no contact.

As the implementation of 988, the mental health equivalent of 911, looms, Henderson wants to make it clear that these programs should be autonomous of law enforcement. He says reducing the city of Miami’s nearly $280 million expenditure on police would be beneficial.

“When crisis teams are embedded in police departments, studies have shown that the care is inadequate,” Henderson added. Government funding would be welcomed, he continued, but not at the expense of police controlling when and how they respond, especially in Black communities. Henderson pointed to an Interrupting Criminalization’s study that found co-response models — programs that send mental health professionals along with police — similar to CAHOOTS “prioritizes the central role for law enforcement” in calls involving mental health.

“If people are already traumatized by police at such the level they are, why would you send police?” Henderson said. “In Black communities, it’s just not going to work.”

One example is the killing of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old father with history of mental illness. Wallace was fatally shot in October 2020 by two Philadelphia police officers. Video footage showed he was holding a knife and walking towards the officers. He was told to drop the weapon numerous times. But he also was experiencing a mental health crisis when officers fired more than a dozen shots at Wallace.

If a similar situation arose, Henderson wants police to be the absolute last response. Instead, he supports the training model of the Newark Community Street Team, a group of local residents whose policing of their own neighborhoods led to a record low in homicides, and Aquil Basheer, a community interventionist who’s helping to broker peace between the Bloods and Crips gangs.

“Basically what it involves is de-escalation: understanding why the person is upset, getting a good understanding of what the person is suffering and then identifying how to make a person feel safe,” said Henderson.

— By C. Isaiah Smalls II, Miami Herald