El Paso began placing clinicians at its 911 center to better respond to mental health calls.

Emergence Health Network – a local agency that provides mental health services – has 16 clinicians stationed at the El Paso Regional Communications Center in Northeast, working on the same floor as 911 call takers. 

The clinicians, who started working there in February, have been trained to de-escalate emotionally distressing situations on the phone and dispatch a crisis intervention team when a person is at risk of harming themselves or others.

City officials gave a tour of the 911 center on Wednesday, a week after the El Paso City Council agreed to settle a lawsuit against an El Paso police officer who killed a man attempting suicide.

Operators answer calls at the El Paso County 911 call center on Thursday, June 29. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“A lot of times people dialing 911 really have more of a mental health need than a need for the traditional law enforcement, fire or medical,” said Scott Calderwood, director of El Paso 911 District. “This is an opportunity for us to continue to reimagine what the next generation of 911 can look like, the ability to match the correct resource with a caller’s needs.”

Clinicians assist 911 call takers, who mark their calls from a list of categories including suicide and mental disorder. Aside from 911, people can still text and call 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as call Emergence Health Network’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 915-779-1800. 

There are multiple techniques to counsel people through a behavioral crisis, even over the phone, that can reduce the necessity of dispatching police, said Tara Blunk, an Emergence Health Network clinician who directs the mental health team at the 911 center.

Tara Blunk, director of Emergence Health Network clinicians who work with the El Paso County 911 call center, said that one goal of the integration between 911 and 988 is to help callers in mental health crises by empowering them with knowledge on accessing resources and creating safety plans. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Their goal is to connect callers with mental health resources and help them gain the confidence to take care of their situation themselves next time, Blunk said.

“I think a lot of times people are afraid that when they call they won’t be anonymous, that as soon as they call, we’re going to be able to track them down and identify them,” Blunk said. “Our goal isn’t to track them down. Our goal is to help them get stable.”

Reducing deadly force and incarceration

There are times, however, when a clinician assesses a person is still in danger of harming themself or others, Blunk said. This is when a crisis intervention team steps in.

Crisis intervention teams, made up of law enforcement officers and clinicians, intervene at the site of mental health emergencies. Their priority is to de-escalate the situation and avoid the use of excessive force, said Victor Talavera, chief of crisis services at Emergence Health Network.

The city of El Paso has faced several lawsuits in recent years regarding police officers who killed people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Justicia for El Paso, organized by Border Network for Human Rights, hold crosses in front of El Paso City Hall with the names of people who were killed by police in El Paso and the United States. El Paso, Texas. July 28, 2020.

Last month, the City Council agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a lawsuit against El Paso Police Officer Ruben Escajeda, who fired his stun gun at a man attempting to hang himself. In 2015, Escajeda responded to a 911 call made by the mother of Daniel Antonio Ramirez. Her son died with a rope around his neck after Escajeda shocked him with a Taser, according to the lawsuit.

Last year, the City Council reached a $1.2 million settlement with the family of Erik Salas Sanchez, who El Paso Police Officer Mando Kenneth Gomez fatally shot in 2015. 

Police arrived at the home of Salas Sanchez’s mother in response to a neighbor’s call. Celia Sanchez told the officers that her son had been acting strangely and she believed he needed mental health services, according to court records. After going inside to detain him, Gomez shot Salas Sanchez three times in the back with a handgun, according to an autopsy report.

Emergence Health Network has crisis intervention teams working with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, El Paso police, City of Socorro police and school districts on crisis intervention teams, Talavera said.

Victor Talavera, chief of crisis and emergency services at Emergence Health Network, speaks during a tour of El Paso’s 911 call center on June 29. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Along with reducing excessive use of force, El Paso’s crisis intervention teams focus on diverting people with mental illness from criminal charges and incarceration when they would be better served in mental health facilities or outpatient services.

“We’re not criminalizing somebody or going there with a perspective that there’s something wrong, because sometimes people are decompensating or they’re going through an episode,” Talavera said. “We shouldn’t criminalize mental health.”

Decompensation refers to the period when someone who manages their mental illness experiences a downturn in their mental health state. U.S. prisons and jails incarcerate a disproportionate amount of people with mental illness, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative

El Paso jails are not equipped to handle people with mental illness, Talavera said. Someone with mental illness could go to jail for petty crime, not get the treatment they need, get exposed to other traumatic elements in jail, and then get released in a worse situation than when they entered, he said.

The 911 call center partnership and crisis intervention teams are among various efforts in El Paso to improve mental health care.

El Paso County is planning to open later this year a mental health court, a 12-month program and alternative to incarceration for people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or severe depression. Emergence Health Network also expanded its therapy services on school campuses this year.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...