The Tompkins County government recently announced their plans to bring mental health reform to crisis-based 911 calls, including a new approach that will better accommodate individuals undergoing varying levels of crises.
Released on March 14, the plans outline a Crisis Alternative Response and Engagement Team that will consist of at least one licensed clinical therapist and a sheriff deputy, both of whom will be trained to respond to emergency mental health situations.
The new plan will dispatch CARE team members following a 911 call or after an on-scene law enforcement officer has identified a mental or behavioral health crisis. The county hopes that this program will create a more sensitive and less traumatic response to these situations, better serving individuals who may go through mental crises.
“The pilot program will aim to divert individuals from the criminal justice system and avoid unnecessary hospitalization whenever possible,” the announcement stated. “The program anticipates meeting these aims by de-escalating crisis situations, linking people in need with community treatment and support services and providing in-person follow-up support within the first 24 to 48 hours after the crisis.”
According to Common Council Member Jorge Defendini ’22, the program is the result of several different community members’ efforts to narrow the gap between law enforcement and public safety.
“[The program] is the product of groups and community members coming together as a part of our Reimagining Public Safety process that happened some time ago,” Defendini said. “A couple of years ago now, we got together and talked about how we can adequately reimagine our public safety to address systemic issues and regain trust between law enforcement and the community. A bunch of recommendations were put forth, and this is one of them.”
Passed in 2021, the Reimagining Public Safety report outlines various plans community groups have for improving public safety in Tompkins County in response to New York State Executive Order 203, which calls for statewide police reform and reinvention.
One of the community groups involved in drafting the report was Ithaca’s Community Justice Center. In a quote from the press release, Monalita Smiley, the center’s project director, emphasized the positive impact she hopes the CARE team program will have on the whole community.
“This is a pilot program that will use de-escalation and help to deliver social support and resources that can help people become healthier and safer,” Smiley said. “Our evaluation of the program will look at how well we meet the goals set out under Reimagining Public Safety and how well we are meeting the needs of the community by responding in a new and different way.”
The program plans to begin functioning by late this spring and will operate Monday through Friday, during what the Tompkins County Mobile Crisis Team calls “peak hours of need.” These are hours the team determined to have the highest number of crisis-related calls.
When asked about the timing of the program, Defendini mentioned that many community members have been asking for mental health sensitivity to be implemented for some time.
“We want to make sure that we are listening to as many folks in the community as possible,” Defendini said. “Folks who have to deal with this on a disproportionate level have been calling us for some time now, and it is on us to catch up with that and respond as quickly as possible and deliver on this overdue need.”
In the press release, Frank Kruppa, the Tompkins County Whole Health Commissioner, shared that for the beginning of its implementation, the program will be in a testing phase and will be changed and improved as needed. For now, Kruppa said he hopes the program will mend relationships across the community and effectively handle wellness-based crisis calls.
“I look forward to learning from the CARE team’s experience in the field and feedback from the public,” Kruppa said. “Our focus is on reducing stigma, providing equitable care that meets people where they are and prevention of crisis situations in our community.”
When given an overview of the plan, some Cornell students expressed their appreciation for having both healthcare workers and police officers respond to crisis calls.
Will Moss ’26 said the presence of police officers can sometimes induce stress, and he supports that healthcare workers trained in mental health will accompany police on crisis calls.
“It’s good that they’re doing that,” Moss said. “If I was having a crisis and only cops showed up, I don’t know how that would help me or benefit me at all. Their job is to arrest us and their presence would stress me out — it could make someone who was having a crisis maybe be more violent and exacerbate the situation, whereas a healthcare worker is much better — they’re trained and know what to do to deescalate the situation.”
Other students, like Maya Pierce ’25, agreed that the plan improves upon the old procedure but expressed doubts about still having law enforcement be involved.
“This is an improvement,” Pierce said, “but as long as we have police, we will not be safe.”
Sophia Torres Lugo ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].
Jonathan Mong ’25 contributed reporting to this article.