Howard To Direct Some Emergency Calls to Mental Health Services, Not Police

Howard County is the latest jurisdiction to adopt a new first-tier option for emergency response, plugging in mental health services among the responses available through the 9-1-1 call center when more appropriate than police.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced the Howard County Police Department (HCPD) and Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center will partner to defer non-emergency mental health 911 calls to counselors. The new program, known as “Communications Initiated Referral to Crisis” (CIRC), begins July 1, 2021 and allows dispatchers to divert qualifying calls to a certified counselor at Grassroots. Photos of the event can be found here.

Many callers utilize 9-1-1 services to address common mental health concerns and incidents, even though many of these callers would be better served by a more immediate connection to mental health services. Connecting these callers with Grassroots allows the County to increase coordination and provide a more appropriate level of response at the time when someone needs it most. In 2020, Howard County dispatchers received approximately 1,789 calls for service which involved a behavioral or mental health-related issue.

Grassroots has a trained team of hotline workers that are skilled in handling calls with those in crisis and provide rapid access to community-based services including those involving substance abuse.

“When someone is having a mental health crisis, often the first person they reach out to is a 911 dispatcher,” said Police Chief Lisa Myers. “Our dispatchers excel at keeping people calm and ensuring they get the help they need. This program gives them an additional tool to refer callers who are not at immediate risk directly to counseling services.”

Prior to transferring a call to the Grassroots Crisis Line, HCPD staff will eliminate that the caller:

  • Presents any immediate harm to self or others
  • Gives any indication they possess or have immediate access to a weapon or other means of immediate harm
  • Indicates the presence of a plan
  • Is under 18 years of age
  • Indicates any use of drugs or alcohol

“The Memorandum of Understanding between the Howard County Police Department and Grassroots enhances an existing collaboration and increases access to mental health services for those in need,” said Dr. Mariana Izraelson, Grassroots Executive Director. “It represents the latest revision in protocols to incorporate best practices that improve performance outcomes by maximizing resources through increased communication and cooperation.”

“When a loved one is having a mental health crisis, it’s traumatic for the entire family,” said Denise Giuliano, NAMI-Howard County Executive Director. “No family member, especially a parent, ever wants to call the police on their loved one but unfortunately, sometimes it’s the safest option for both the family and for the one in crisis. The Communications Initiated Referral to Crisis (CIRC) protocols will help ensure that those in crisis get the help they need immediately and by the most appropriate source.”

Coverage on the WMAR news site (ABC 2 television) recognizes the Howard County move as part of a trend in service delivery, in Maryland and elsewhere:

The move is similar to one Baltimore City implemented last month.

Johns Hopkins University this fall also intends to launch a pilot program that includes a Support Team responding to incidents of students, faculty, staff, and community members experiencing a crisis.


Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties