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City Council approved a sweeping $ 21 million package on Wednesday to enhance the city’s response to people in mental health crises — and Mayor Sylvester Turner pledged for more support in the coming weeks.

A major component of the new push is $ 12 million to fund a new service that allows mental health professionals to respond to certain 911 calls instead of police officers. Through a pilot program, the city currently diverts some Nonviolent 911 mental health crisis calls to members of the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (MCOT), which are groups of mental health professionals deployed quickly to help those in crisis.

MCOT is already available directly by calling the Harris Center’s Crisis Line, but the goal of the city’s new MCOT program is to refer 911 calls that don’t necessitate a police response.

Council members voted unanimously to permanently fund 18 teams. Turner had pledged during budget workshops in 2021 to create 20 teams — not just 18 — and reemphasized his promise before the council’s vote Wednesday, saying they would bring a request to the council for the remaining two teams “very, very shortly.”

His office could not immediately provide an explanation for why the two weren’t included in Wednesday’s ask. This story will be updated when a response is received.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner speaks about public safety in March 2022.

Justin Rex, Houston Chronicle / Contributor

“We are going to Honor that commitment,” Turner said before the vote. “There won’t be any need to reduce our CIRT teams, but we will add to our MCOT teams. That should be before us within a few weeks.”

The police department’s CIRTs, short for Crisis Intervention Response Team, are a similar approach to helping those in mental health crises. But the program has one distinct difference: The CIRT program pairs licensed mental health professionals with police officers who respond to some of the more dire mental health calls. A team from MCOT, for example, will not be sent to calls with weapons or if someone is in immediate danger. With an armed police officer by their side, CIRT clinicians are sent to a wider swath of mental health crisis calls.

The CIRT program, which currently has 18 teams, was also expanded by six teams. Jaison Oliver, a police reform advocate who was vocal during the city’s 2021 budget hearings, said he hoped the city would divert funds from CIRT teams to MCOT teams.

“I’m glad the Mayor is open to expanding MCOT,” Oliver said in a text. “I also think it’s important to note that if we continue expanding programs like CIRT, we will reduce the funds available for MCOT while also placing more responsibilities on the police, who I hope we can remove from these screened mental health diversion calls altogether.”

Jaison Oliver in 2021 helped organize community meetings about the city's budget, encouraging more people to get involved in the process.

Jaison Oliver in 2021 helped organize community meetings about the city’s budget, encouraging more people to get involved in the process.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

City Council Member Letitia Plummer, who often advocates for criminal justice reform, said that prioritizing diversion programs for those in mental health crises is paramount.

“I’ve got letters from inmates at the county jail,” Plummer said before the vote. “One specific story, a gentleman was on his roof having a mental health issue, and his mother had no other to call than 911. He was arrested and is still incarcerated. She was just calling 911 because she didn’t want her son to jump off the roof. This is so important to have people who are coming there that are licensed professionals of the Healing arts and master-level clinicians and not a police officer. ”

On top of the MCOT and CIRT programs, the council approved a new program called Clinician-Officer Remote Evaluation, which arms police officers with iPads and HIPAA-certified software that allows for instant on-site telehealth appointments with mental health professionals for those in crisis. Council members also approved expanding the city’s Crisis Call Diversion program, which staffs the 911 call center with those who can divert calls to mental health professionals, to operate 24/7.

The new measures are part of Turner’s One Safe Houston pledge to “improve public safety and reduce the Harms caused by violent crime” through a $ 44 million boost to public safety funding, made possible by the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocations to the city of Houston. Nearly half of the One Safe Houston bill is dedicated to improving the city’s mental health crisis response, which is funded in the coming years with ARPA dollars.

“The city of Houston is facing a public health crisis,” Turner spokesperson Mary Benton said. “It will require all of us working together to overcome it.”

Turner stipulated that as soon as the one-time funds dry up, council members will have to find alternative funding sources.

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