In the first seven months of this year, the city of Greensboro’s Behavioral Health Response Team responded to 1,437 calls for service.

“The goal is to decrease interactions with law enforcement officers,” said Latisha McNeil, the manager of the city’s newly created Office of Community Safety. “We didn’t want people calling back repeatedly.”

The behavioral health response team, shortened to BHRT, is the city’s attempt to move away from traditional methods of policing when responding to mental-health related calls. The creation of the unit is a direct response to a national conversation around policing in the wake of the 2020 Uprisings. 

Last year, the team responded to more than 1,200 calls and provided almost 1,000 hours of follow-up services, according to city data.

And while McNeil and others associated with the program say it’s working, they say they need more support from city leaders, including more funding, to keep it going.

“Currently we are only able to respond to a limited number of calls,” McNeil explained. “When you look at other similar teams doing this work, you will find that we are severely understaffed.”

How does BHRT work?

According to McNeil, BHRT started in March 2020 as a co-response model in which mental health providers ride along with police on select calls that require a mental health-related response.

The way it works, according to Erin Williams, the lead of BHRT, is when a call comes through 911, the dispatcher can call the team and see if there is a counselor available to respond to a call. Other times, police officers themselves who are listening to the radio can self initiate, meaning they can call the team to request a mental-health professional.

“We are flexible based on needs,” Williams said. 

As of right now, the team has only six crisis counselors who work Monday through Friday between 8 a.m-5 p.m. or 1 p.m.-10 p.m. If there’s an incident that takes place outside of those days or hours, police have to respond without the counselors.

On the police department side, there are nine officers who are trained to be a part of BHRT.

“Mental health calls are happening 24/7,” Williams said. “I think our ultimate goal is to have enough counselors where we can respond 24/7.”

Latisha McNeil

Currently, due to the small size of the team, there’s usually just one person working the later shift, meaning that they can only respond to one call at a time in the entire city. They have to triage which calls to prioritize.

“It’s not a great place to be,” Williams said. “If we don’t connect with people during that call-for-service, it’s a 50/50 chance that we’re able to respond and then we miss the opportunity.”

The fix? More money, says McNeil.

According to the 2023-24 adopted budget, the city spent $627,518 to fund the Office of Community Safety for the 2021-22 fiscal year. For the 2022-23 year, the budget increased to $916,940 million. For the 2023-24 year, the adopted budget lists $1.18 million and the projected amount for 2024-25 is listed at $1.22 million. 

When looking at other offices in the budget, the Office of Community Safety’s allocation is the fifth on the list, behind the Economic Development and Business Support office ($5.34 million for the 2023-24 adopted budget), the City Manager’s office ($2.89 million), the Office of Sustainability ($2.39 million) and the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs ($2.03 million).

The budget also shows that while the Office of Community Safety has 11 full-time employees, its budget is smaller than other offices who have much less staffing such as the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, which employs 8 full-time employees, and the Office of Sustainability, which has seven.

According to both McNeil and Williams, they say they need more staffing to do the work effectively. In Durham, for example, McNeil said that their team has 47 counselors. The city has a slightly smaller population of 285,527 as of the 2021 Census, compared to Greensboro’s 298,263.

An increase in staff would help, especially when it comes to the follow-up calls, Williams said. 

“The follow-up is critical and time consuming,” she said. “For example, we have a very high utilizer; they call more than 10 times a day. That takes up four hours in my day. And that’s just one person. To do these things that make a difference it takes these chunks of time.”

Right now, just one person on the team is tasked with follow-up calls for the entire BHRT team. According to Williams, he has hundreds on his caseload.

“He is not going to be able to follow up with these individuals on a meaningful basis. At the minimum, BHRT needs to be twice the size that it currently is.”

On Sept. 30, Mayor Vaughan told TCB that the BHRT team “probably could use more funding and use more officers,” but did not state whether there were concrete plans to increase the group’s funding.

Data from across the country has shown that co-response or alternative response models of policing work to decrease negative interactions with police. 

According to a study conducted in 2020 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the University of Cincinnati, research found “primarily positive impacts across the outcomes of enhancing crisis de-escalation, increasing individuals’ connection to services, reducing pressure on the criminal justice and health care systems, and promoting cost-effectiveness.”

And at least one significant person in Greensboro wants to take the model even further.

From co-response to a no-police response?

Greensboro Police Chief John Thompson told TCB that he’s excited at the work that BHRT is doing and that he wants a non-police team, too.

“I think [BHRT] is a phenomenal program,” Thompson said. “It’s been two-plus years that it’s been in place and I would like to expand that program to have a non-police response to mental-health calls.”

Greensboro Police Chief John Thompson

He pointed to the fact that in the last few months, Winston-Salem has developed their own alternative response team, known as BEAR, that deploys just mental-health counselors on select calls, no police.

As TCB has reported, Winston-Salem’s BEAR team has been in operation since May and has received 526 calls, as of early August. The city currently has seven crisis counselors as part of the program. The initiative is a 1-year pilot program financed through $700,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funding.

That’s something Chief Thompson wants to see in Greensboro, too.

“I feel like we need to develop that non-police response,” he said. “I think it just takes a commitment from our elected officials to say, ‘We want to fund this program.’”

According to Thompson’s estimate, it would take anywhere from three to five counselors to start such a program.

“I just think it would take some staffing and some money behind it,” he said.

“We’ve talked about the need internally for it,” Thompson added. “I’m not sure if it’s made it over to elected officials for their discussion.”

Mayor Vaughan said that if the chief has an idea to expand BHRT, that the city is open to the idea.

“They’ve got to give us a plan first,” Vaughan said. “When they come up with what the plan looks like, I’m sure we’ll fund it.”

However, Council person Sharon Hightower said that she’s not yet sold on the idea of a completely police-free alternative-response model. Hightower, whose daughter is a social worker, said she wants to make sure counselors who respond to the calls are safe.

“I’m not quite ready to put her in that type of environment without some type of protection,” Hightower said.

In order to do that, both Hightower and Vaughan said they would like to see more training of the 911 operators who would make the determination to send just social workers on a call.

“I think if you talk to 911, they are not necessarily the ones that want to make the call to just send a social worker, and then it goes bad,” Vaughan said. “So they need to be involved in the process as well because they are the first line of first responders.”

“That to me, would require some intense training,” Hightower added. “You can’t just take a four-week course to understand mental health. So I think we’d have to be very careful on how they would direct that call.”

Still, both Vaughan and Hightower acknowledged a need for additional support for officers during mental-health incidents.

“We all agree that police officers are not clinicians,” Vaughan said. “That’s not what they’re trained for, and I think we’ve been told somewhere between 15-20 percent of calls are calling 911 for non-criminal issues. And the sad part is that they just have nobody else to call.”

The Greensboro Police Department has faced its share of criticism in the last few years for killings by police of unarmed individuals. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

In the meantime, Thompson said that the police department has applied for a $500,000 grant that would help the city further their behavioral-health models.

“If we got it, we could start to expand that non-police response,” he said.

McNeil agreed with the need for such a program and noted how she hears from police officers themselves who want different options.

“For too long police have stood in the gap of a lot of social issues that weren’t their issues to deal with,” she said. “We have, as a community and as a society, utilized 911 for police to come and do something…. This would give us the opportunity to stand up as a society to help in community safety. Law enforcement and public safety is not just the responsibility of the police; it’s the responsibility of society.”

What is the Office of Community Safety?

The BHRT team is housed within the Office of Community Safety, a new city office that was created in September of last year.

“The goal was to provide a space for alternative responses for calls to service and to really provide a place where alternative responses can reside,” McNeil said.

In addition to BHRT, the office also includes the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission, a violence prevention team and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. The justice advisory commission, otherwise known as GCJAC, is the oldest of the four entities, originating in 2018, and is made up of nine city council-appointed community members who identify issues within the police department and make recommendations. In the past, those who have been associated with GCJAC have spoken out about how the group’s recommendations often go ignored and how the group “doesn’t have any teeth” or subpoena power, due to its powers being limited to making recommendations, which city council may choose not to implement. The website for the commission makes clear that the entity does not investigate police department complaints. 

The violence prevention team, which is the newest part of the office, employs a model similar to Cure Violence, a national response to gun violence in America. While the city of Greensboro already has a Cure Violence branch, McNeil said at this point, the office isn’t coordinating with the existing group.

“They focus on a specific area and the violence in our city is transient,” McNeil explained. “We knew we wanted to do more to diversify prevention in the city.”

Lastly, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, involves a group of officers who work to keep people out of the criminal justice system by connecting them with social services rather than arresting them.

“Let’s use something like trespassing,” McNeil said. “Instead of an officer charging that person with that, this is a symptom of a much larger issue. So instead of arresting them and taking them to join, what they would do is make a referral to our LEADS program and the coordinator would meet with that person and talk to them about what services they need and see what got them to that spot. It could be a housing issue, mental-health issue, substance-abuse issue. Whatever those issues are, we are trying to connect them with those services so they don’t end up going into the criminal justice system.”

According to McNeil, LEAD began taking referrals and had connected at least five individuals as of the end of August.

All together, McNeil says, the goal of this newly created office is to minimize the community’s interactions with police when it’s not necessary.

“All of these programs, while they may be different in their initiatives, are about creating opportunities to divert someone from interactions with the criminal justice system,” McNeil said. “It’s about providing alternatives.”

But McNeil and others say that in order to have a more robust office, they need more support.

“We need more to be able to do this,” she said.

Learn more about the Office of Community Safety here.

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