Behavioral health specialists responded to 830 crisis calls in the program’s first six months
Behavioral health specialists responded to 830 crisis calls in the program’s first six months

A new law enforcement diversion program, the Alternative Response Team (ART), responded to 830 emergency calls in its first six months of operation.

The Bellingham program, which began operating in July 2023 through Whatcom County Health and Community Services, sends professionals, instead of police, to help people in a behavioral health crisis when a local resident calls 911.

Staffed by behavioral health professionals and an ART community connector embedded in the WhatComm dispatch center, the program served 769 individuals between July and December 2023. It currently operates from 8:30am to 5:30pm Monday through Friday.

Programs like ART are part of the department’s “public health approach to public safety,” said Mallora Christensen, manager of Response Systems, in a recent presentation to the Whatcom County Council.

“[It’s] one that focuses the response and interaction on emergence, doing our best to provide interventions that target the root causes behind an individual’s situation,” she said.

ART launched in January 2023 and spent months getting ready to operate, Christensen said. The program is now in the analysis phase.

“Should we change our hours? Should we expand to seven days a week? Could the community connector position play a different role in involving other teams in 911 calls? I would say we’re still in that phase, let’s do the work long enough to figure it out,” Christensen told CDN.

How ART works

When someone calls 911 during ART hours, dispatchers and the ART community connector decide what the response should look like, Christensen said. Dispatchers conduct safety checks with callers to determine if it would be safe to send a behavioral health team instead of police.

Bellingham Police Department Public Information Officer Megan Peters said the police department received 37,000 calls from July to December 2023, and approximately 2 percent of those calls were forwarded to ART.

Deputy Director Alisne Everbeck, who runs the WhatComm 911 dispatch center, told the council meeting that calls fall into three buckets: a person calling for help for themselves while experiencing a behavioral health crisis; a person calls worried that a loved one may need help; or the community calls for a “disturbance.”

“It can be trespassing, especially if the person doesn’t have the authority to enter it or they don’t want him to have an interaction with law enforcement, he just wants the problem to stop,” she said. “It could also just be someone acting strangely in a public place and causing alarm to the callers.”