Mesa Police have a two-pronged approach to the challenge of continuing a swift response in their fast-growing city to 911 calls: Hire more officers and farm out calls.
While diverting calls might sound like an indifferent, pass-the-buck attitude, police officials stressed in a recent presentation to Mesa City Council that is the best way to get trained, experienced, professionals involved early when the call involves mental-health crisis.
“The goal is getting those in need long-term help,” Assistant Chief Lee Rankin said.
He noted the department’s crisis response team includes detectives and “an embedded clinician,” adding that 28 percent of Mesa’s police officers are trained to deal with mental-health calls.
In 2019, Rankin reported, 911 dispatchers transferred 236 calls to the Crisis Response Network.Last year, 1,125 calls were diverted to the network – five times the number transferred the previous year.
The process, Rankin said, gives people in crisis “professionally trained and experienced mental health professionals.”
He said he was confident Mesa Police “improved the delivery of mental health services for people suffering and in crisis in our community.”
Meanwhile, overall mental health calls and calls threatening self-harm declined significantly in 2020.
According to Rankin’s presentation, Mesa police responded to 2,570 suicide-threat calls in 2020, down from 3,387 in pre-pandemic 2019. Suicide-threat calls in Mesa topped 3,000 annually from 2016 to 2018.
New statistics show a national downward trend of suicides last year – somewhat of a surprise to many mental-health experts, considering the lockdowns and absence of many normal social routines during the pandemic.
According to a recently-released study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, total deaths in the U.S. rose from 2.8 million in 2019 to 3.3 million in 2020.
“COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in 2020, with an estimated 345,323 deaths, and was largely responsible for the substantial increase in total deaths from 2019 to 2020,” according to the study.
Deaths from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and “unintentional injuries” all rose significantly in the pandemic year.
But the number of deaths by suicide nationally fell from 47,511 in 2019 to 44,834 in 2020. The number of suicides was the lowest since 2015.
In Mesa last year, 86 people died by suicide. In 2019, 85 took their own lives. There were 83 suicides in Mesa in 2018 and 89 in 2017.
Nationally, 1 in 7,500 people died by suicide. In Mesa, about 1 in 5,800 died by suicide.
The suicide rate is often expressed in deaths per 100,000. In Mesa, the suicide rate per 100,000 was about 16 in 2020, slightly higher than the national rate of 13.5 suicides per 100,000.
In Mesa, total mental-health 911 calls fell from 7,149 in 2019 to 5,717 last year.
Though part of this was related to diverting calls to CRN, this was the lowest number of mental-health calls Mesa police have handled since 2015 – when the total was 4,419.
Police Chief Ken Cost and others again praised Mesa residents, who several years ago approved a portion of sales tax going to support police hiring.
“For the third straight year we’ve set a record for the lowest crime rate the City of Mesa’s ever seen,” said Cost.
As the city kicked off its budget process, Cost said he hopes to add 11 officers and nine other staff positions, including two 911 dispatchers and a crime scene specialist.
Assistant Chief Ed Wessing gave a presentation on increased staffing projections and response time.
“Our target is 4 minutes to (respond to) emergency calls. We’ve met that benchmark at 3 minutes, 55 seconds,” he said.
According to a chart he presented, however, response times vary across the city, with police taking far longer to answer 911 calls in east Mesa.
The fastest response times last year were in the Central and Fiesta districts – covering downtown and west Mesa – both at a swift 3 minutes, 30 seconds.
Distress calls in the Red Mountain District of northeast Mesa were answered right around 4 minutes.
But Superstition District 911 calls from southeast Mesa took nearly 5 minutes and 30 seconds to answer, on average.
And those reporting property times in the southeast waited nearly 8 minutes, on average.
Police responded to non-emergency property calls in about 6 minutes, 30 seconds in the northeast and under 6 minutes in central and western Mesa.
Citywide, the target for property-crime calls response is 7 minutes, Wessing said.
“We met and exceeded that benchmark at 6 minutes and 8 seconds,” he added.
“One of the things I’m proud of is Mesa is the second-fastest to respond to Part 1 calls or emergency calls in the entire Phoenix metro area,” Wessing said.
He noted “data-driven crime fighting” as well as the sales tax-supported increases in staffing have helped police keep up with rapid population growth over the past five years.
A $196-million bond approved by Mesa voters in 2018 will fund new police stations in the city’s northeast and southeast portions.
Assistant Chief Dan Butler previously said the new stations will help reduce response times in east Mesa.