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North King County cities will broaden mental-health response to 911 calls

The crisis response system in King County is a patchwork, but one that is changing fast. Five cities in North King County have banded together to add mental-health professionals to their police departments. Soon the program plans to offer those responders seven days a week, including teams that can answer calls without law enforcement.

“Co-responder” is a term that you’re hearing increasingly around King County. It’s the concept of police or firefighters teaming up with mental health professionals to handle certain calls.

Like a recent one in the city of Bothell, where a mother called police because her teenage son has been running away from home. Bothell police officer Jenna Shannon comes outside after speaking to the family in their home.

“Son has dealt with police apparently five days in a row, so he wasn’t super-excited to have me there and wasn’t wanting to talk today," Shannon said. "So Svetlana’s going to follow up.”

Svetlana Kirilova is a mental-health professional with the North Sound RADAR Navigator program. Five city police departments in North King County started the initiative together to fund positions like hers. Kirilova accompanies police on calls from people who are in distress, like one elderly woman who was repeatedly calling 911, saying she felt threatened.

Kirilova discovered the woman’s living conditions were deteriorating.

“She was sleeping between the sofa and coffee table," Kirilova said. "She was not eating properly."

Kirilova spent months contacting the woman’s family and ultimately helped her move to an assisted living facility.

There are some distinctive things about the RADAR Navigator program. One is that navigators write up response plans for officers on how best to approach people.

Program Manager Brook Buettner said they also warn officers about what not to say.

“Sometimes they can be really simple things like, ‘Do not refer to stepdad as dad,'" she said. "That will make the young person very angry and may result in escalated behavior.’”

These notes are available to officers through the in-car computer system across the five partner cities in North King County – Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Bothell, Kenmore and Kirkland.

The program faces a couple limitations. Right now, mental-health navigators are only available during certain hours. And they have to be accompanied by a police officer.

But Buettner says more funding next year will allow navigators to expand to evenings and weekends, and to answer some calls in teams without police officers.

Bothell resident Jennie Marker says she would welcome that development. In recent years Marker says she frequently called 911 to deal with trauma and sensory overload while raising her young children. Yet she feared and distrusted the police.

“Even though I value and respect their role, I am deeply afraid of them and their power," Marker said. "So, if they could just be removed from the mental-health space, I think that it would be better for everyone.”

Two years ago, a Bothell police officer brought a mental-health navigator to see Marker. The navigator helped solve immediate needs, like getting enough food and diapers for Marker’s family, and then connected her with mental-health resources.

“I’ve got to tell you, my life has exponentially changed for the better having the Radar program," she said. "Because no longer do I call 911. I don’t.”

Now she said she calls the 988 mental-health hotline if she needs to talk to someone. And she serves on the Radar program’s Community Advisory Board.

Bothell Police Chief Ken Seuberlich helped launch the navigator program. He said his officers love it and it’s been a game-changer for the department. But the big problem is, there’s almost nowhere to take people while they’re in crisis, besides jail and emergency rooms.

“It’s like having nurses and doctors but no hospitals," he said. "The fact of the matter is, we need places to navigate people to.”

However, they recently got some good news on that front. State funding has been approved for a brand-new 16-bed crisis stabilization facility in North King County, in addition to the existing one in Seattle.

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