New Jersey is expanding its program that pairs mental health professionals with police officers as they respond to emergency calls involving people in crisis.

The program is called ARRIVE Together, an acronym for “Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence and Escalation." It started as a small pilot program in June 2021 in Cumberland County, then grew to include several communities in Union County as well as Atlantic City.

On Wednesday, state Attorney General Matt Platkin announced he was adding more than two dozen new communities to the program, spread out over half of the state’s counties.

Gov. Phil Murphy, appearing alongside Platkin on Thursday, said he will allocate $10 million to expand the program to the entire state in the coming year.

“This comprehensive response substantially increases the chance that an incident can be de-escalated and substantially decreases the chance that force will be used,” Murphy said.

The program and its expansion are part of the attorney general's overall goal to reduce police use of force since he took office a year ago, first in an acting capacity and more recently confirmed by the state Senate.

Platkin successfully pushed for a bill requiring that all police officers in the state be licensed, which legislators voted into law last year. He reaffirmed the commitment to holding police accountable on Monday when he announced criminal charges against a Paterson police officer who shot a fleeing suspect in the back.

The ARRIVE Together program assigns a plainclothes cop and a mental health worker to ride around together in an unmarked patrol car, responding to 911 calls when mental health issues are involved. In the Atlantic City version, instead of being accompanied by mental health workers in person, police are equipped with telehealth tools.

“This is born out of a recognition that we have asked officers to do way too much,” Platkin said. “No one person can be a patrol officer, a mental health professional, a behavioral health specialist, an addiction counselor, a family dispute resolution expert. No one can do all that.”

Gothamist recently observed a weekly meeting Platkin holds with two senior deputy attorneys general who coordinate the program. They ticked through a long list of incident reports from the ARRIVE teams that were being tested in Union and Cumberland counties. The calls included incidents involving domestic violence, a homeless person camped out next to a bank's ATM, and a teenager who was acting aggressively toward her father and threatening to harm herself.

There were no arrests or injuries in any of those cases. And Platkin and his deputies said that’s the typical outcome of ARRIVE Together interactions.

In one incident, a man had yelled at congregants at his church, returned home to punch walls and barricaded himself in a room, the deputies said. The ARRIVE team successfully talked him into an ambulance and he was brought to a hospital, they said.

“So that was a good example of an escalating situation, a very agitated individual, that was resolved successfully,” Andrew Macurdy, senior counsel to the attorney general, told Platkin.

“We've definitely seen situations like that end differently,” Platkin replied. “If you just think about these calls, you could imagine how any one of these could have gone sideways if the mental health professional wasn't there.”

The Office of the Public Defender serves many of the people who are arrested in the midst of mental health crises in New Jersey. About a third of the inmates in the county jails have mental illness, and the rate is about 40% in state prisons, according to Carl Herman, director of mental health advocacy at the Office of the Public Defender.

Although Herman hasn’t worked directly with the ARRIVE Together program, he said anything that keeps people with mental illness out of jail is a positive step.

“I think it's gonna save lives in the long run,” Herman said. “And if you're in jail because you have no place to go or you're not competent to appear in front of a judge, it just gets very dragged out and very unfortunate for people who are clearly mentally ill.”

The Rev. Charles Boyer of organization Salvation and Social Justice, who is also a pastor at Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in Trenton, took part in conversations between community leaders and Platkin’s office when ARRIVE Together was first launched.

“I think anything that has anybody in the picture with police that can reduce the potential of someone losing their life because of a mental health crisis is absolutely a good thing,” Boyer said.

But Boyer prefers reforms that have begun elsewhere in the country, where crisis response teams are entirely composed of civilians.

“Where we need to go and where energy and resources need to go Is creating alternative public safety models that do not involve police at all,” Boyer said. That would include any kind of police stop where there is no anticipated threat of violence, such as a traffic stop or illegal drug sales.

Some cities have already instituted civilian-only response teams, including Denver, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, Florida.

“Civilian-only responses are already demonstrating their ability to safely answer behavioral health-related 911 calls,” said Daniela Gilbert, who leads the Redefining Public Safety Initiative at the Vera Institute. “Too often we see crisis response programs that heavily rely on police with limited community collaboration and underinvestment in community-based services and supports.”