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More cities remove police from teams responding to mental health crisis calls

Katrina Pross
Program manager Teena Turner works in the CLCR Team office in the basement of the City-County Building.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text the mental health crisis and suicide prevention number 988 or chat at

In the basement of downtown Indianapolis’ City-County Building, Haleigh Rigger speaks into a handheld radio.

“Clinician one control,” Rigger says. She’s a mental health clinician, notifying police dispatch that she and her team of professionals are ready to respond to nonviolent mental health calls.

The Clinician-led Community Response Team is deployed across the city’s downtown district. There are no police or members of law enforcement on the team, an arrangement that has never existed in Indianapolis before. The team has already responded to more than 50 calls since it started in July.

In Indianapolis, community members and advocates, reckoning with multiple killings of people in mental health crises at the hands of police, have called for this type of response for years.

Nationwide, 1 in every 5 calls police respond to involve an element of behavioral health and more than 20% of the people killed at the hands of police have had a known mental health diagnosis.

One study suggests that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other people.

The presence of uniformed and armed officers can make the person in crisis feel like they are in trouble, said Bianca Harris who organizes with the advocacy group Faith in Indiana’s Black Church Coalition.

“We have to keep in mind that when we come to someone who's in crisis, we're not just only dealing with that crisis at the moment, we are also dealing with all of their history that has led up to that crisis,” Harris said. “And the relationship between police departments and people of color specifically, it's not a fairy tale. There's lots of problems, and it's highly problematic in certain ways.”

Harris was contracted by the city to help start the CLCR pilot. She said she was eager to get involved.

“When we started talking about – how do we revolutionize mental health? How do we have equitable access? I'm like ‘yes,’ because I don't have anywhere I can send my Black clients, I can't tell you to call 911 comfortably and not know who's going to show up,” Harris said.

The Indianapolis team has received widespread support from city leaders. But some community members warn that it’s essential the team expand their hours and reach as soon as possible.

Lee Ivey, Presley Gillespie, and Teena Turner are members of the city's CLCR Team.
Katrina Pross
Lee Ivey, Presley Gillespie, and Teena Turner are members of the city's CLCR Team.

How the team works

The city announced a pilot program for the team last year with $2 million in funding, which was included in Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s 2023 budget.

The clinician-led team operates every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and only in the city’s downtown district, which encompasses an area of about 3.5 square miles. The units consist of a clinician and a peer specialist. When they respond to a call, a program manager remains at their office and keeps in touch with the team.

“If there is immediate danger, then obviously, if it's any type of threat, then safety is our number one concern for our clinicians,” said Andrea Brown, director of operations for the CLCR Team.

Brown clarified that if a weapon is present on the scene, such as in a home or in someone’s car, that would not automatically disqualify the CLCR Team from responding.

“Just the word gun does not mean that we're not going to respond,” she said.

The team handles a variety of calls. In one instance, the team helped a person struggling with suicidal ideation. During another incident, they assisted someone with dementia who got separated from their family. Sometimes people just need someone to talk to, staff members said.

If needed, the team can transport individuals to a hospital, or a treatment facility like the Assessment and Intervention Center located at the city’s Community Justice Campus. The team also follows up with people for whom they provide care.

Clinician Lee Ivey said he considers his job is to be a “professional listener.”

“I show up for people and I meet them where they are,” he said. “Try to create space for them to feel as comfortable as possible to speak their needs and feel safe while they're doing it.”

Presley Gillespie is a peer specialist, a role that was included on the CLCR Team so people who have gone through similar mental health experiences could be part of the response. She said success for the team means making sure that people feel seen and heard.

“A lot of times interpersonal communication is so overlooked,” she said. “The connection that we have human to human is so special, and it's so important. And I feel like people lose sight of that. But it's paramount.”

Why clinicians respond to some incidents instead of police

Other cities like Eugene, Ore. and Denver, Colo. have teams to respond to mental health related calls without law enforcement.

Indianapolis looked at those programs to build the model for its own program.

Typically, city 911 dispatchers triage the calls they receive for the best available responder. If there is a possible public safety threat, such as when a weapon is involved, then the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department will respond – or the Mobile Crisis Assistance Team, which includes both clinicians and police, if that unit is on duty.

But community members voiced their concerns that MCAT was not enough, and argued that police should not respond to mental health calls at all.

According to the Washington Post, about 20 percent of all people killed by police since 2015 were experiencing a mental health crisis.

There is little evidence that training police departments to respond to mental health calls as part of what’s known as crisis intervention teams is effective at reducing the number of people killed and injured. That’s why more cities across the U.S. are starting to adopt a no-police model of response.

Recent deaths after police respond to mental health crises prompt concern

Calls for a team with the expertise to handle those calls in Indianapolis to provide mental health care, and prevent the loss of life ratcheted up after Herman Whitfield III was killed last year.

Whitfield’s mother called 911 at about 3:30 a.m. on April 25, 2022. Whitfield was having a mental health crisis, and his parents wanted him to be taken to a hospital. Instead, six police entered their home, tased Whitfield twice, and placed him in the prone position until he became unresponsive. He was pronounced dead about an hour later at a nearby hospital.

“My heart is heavy thinking about that right now,” Ivey said. “And that's the exact reason why this team has been established, to show up for the Herman Whitfields of the city. And see to it that the same thing doesn't happen again. That's why we're here.”

For some, such as those who knew Herman Whitfield III, there are still questions about how effective the program could ultimately be.

Gladys and Herman Whitfield, Jr. are Herman Whitfield III’s parents. They were there the night of their son’s mental health crisis. Gladys Whitfield called 911. Herman Whitfield, Jr. answered the door when police showed up, telling them that an ambulance should be there.

The Whitfields emphasize that they are supportive of the team. But they said they wonder why the team’s pilot hours are during the day, and not at night. In their son’s case, the mental health crisis happened at nearly 3:30 a.m.

“And then regarding people who have issues outside of business hours, that's a question – I just don't see an answer to it right now,” Gladys Whitfield said.

The pilot program plans to increase its hours to 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the downtown district by the end of this year. But to do so, the team first has to increase its size.

Once the team reaches 24/7 capacity, it hopes to expand to the city’s east district starting next year.

In a statement, the Office of Public Health and Safety underlined that the team has the funding to expand its hours, but doesn’t have the staff to do so yet. Currently, 13 people are on staff. OPHS said 23 are needed for around-the-clock coverage.

The Whitfields said it’s hard to know what would have happened that night if the CLCR Team had existed. But they think it would have been a different outcome.

“Our son could still be here and still be doing good things and laughing and talking with us and hugging us,” Gladys Whitfield said. “We don't have that anymore.”

More recent incidents have also highlighted the shortcomings of the current response system and the importance of finding the best response to someone in crisis. In late August, IMPD shot and killed 40-year-old Kendall Darnell Gilbert. According to IMPD and others involved, he experienced multiple mental health episodes over the course of a weekend.

Police said Gilbert was threatening others with a machete.

IMPD said that MCAT was not working at the time, and that because Gilbert was armed, it was not a case for which the CLCR would provide help. The situation also unfolded at a residence that was not located in the city’s downtown district.

IMPD said that a psychologist was at the scene assisting the Crisis Negotiation Unit.

At a town hall meeting the night after Gilbert was killed, community members voiced frustration over police responding to mental health incidents.

IMPD Chief Randal Taylor addressed the broader issue at the department’s budget hearing before the Indianapolis City-County Council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee.

“I believe that law enforcement should be the last resort in issues related to mental health, not the first,” he said.

Though the program is in its early days, the team already knows the CLCR program needs more money to continue.

In August, the city’s Office of Public Health and Safety Director Martine Romy Bernard-Tucker asked the Indianapolis City-County Council to allocate an additional $1 million to the CLCR Team. The proposed funding is part of Hogsett’s 2024 budget, which the council is set to vote on in October.

“If everything goes well, and I don't have any reason to think it's not gonna go well, the goal is to serve everyone in Indy,” she said.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text the mental health crisis and suicide prevention number 988 or chat at

Katrina Pross is a Corps Member of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio, WFPL in Kentucky and KOSU in Oklahoma.

Katrina Pross is a criminal justice reporter at WFYI and a corps member of Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Katrina joined WFYI in June 2021 following a year-long reporting fellowship at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she covered courts and criminal justice. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2020, with degrees in journalism and French. She’s previously held internships at APM Reports, the Star Tribune and a radio station in France. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, reading and traveling.