Greensboro’s behavioral-health response team published its first annual report in early March.

In tandem with the police department’s officers, BHRT crisis counselors respond to emergency calls where mental-health expertise is needed. This kind of co-response model is an example of how police departments across the country are experimenting with decreasing law enforcement involvement for specific calls in the wake of historic protests in 2020. In the Triad, a majority of police killings in the last decade have involved Black victims, many of whom were also undergoing mental health crises.

Created in December 2020, the team’s counselors were initially managed under the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. In 2021, the team answered 3,274 calls, according to previous reporting by TCB. By fall 2022, the team moved under the newly created Office of Community Safety, which is managed by Latisha McNeil and will “house a variety of teams dealing with larger community-facing safety work” according to the report. In 2022, 911 operators received 2,357 calls coded as mental-health calls, adding that 1,220 people had been contacted by BHRT or contact had been attempted.

A screenshot from the report

According to the city’s website, the office’s objectives include enabling GPD to “focus on issues relevant to law enforcement” while aiming to allow for “transparency and accountability for both the police and community.”

In an interview with TCB, McNeil said the office was created to house alternatives to traditional public safety models.

“We wanted to have a place to house programs like BHRT [and] community-focused public-safety programs,” she said.

In addition to BHRT, the office houses the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission which reports directly to the city council and the city manager’s office. The office is also home to new teams like Violence Prevention team and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which will help police officers “divert individuals from the criminal justice system and instead provide them access to community resources that enhance their quality of life” according to the city’s website.

“We’ve hired our Violence Prevention coordinator and we’ve hired our LEAD diversion,” McNeil said, adding that the Violence Prevention program has already started, but a kickoff celebration for the initiative will be held on National Gun Violence Awareness Day which falls on June 2 this year.

How does the behavioral health response team work?

Headed by Erin Williams, the team is comprised of seven clinicians plus two interns. Williams is a licensed clinical mental-health counselor supervisor with a master’s degree in applied clinical psychology and more than 10 years of experience in the field. Most of the clinicians have obtained advanced degrees, and many are licensed clinical mental-health counselors or licensed clinical social-worker associates. The team includes eight police officers as well as a community outreach coordinator. In August, a paramedic was added to the team. 

BHRT operates Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. However, counselors are still available to GPD officers via phone outside of these hours. 

BHRT focuses on ensuring that each individual receives proper care by following up with them post-crisis, and the team’s outreach coordinator assists with follow-up on GPD referrals.

While officers secure the scene, counselors provide expertise in deescalation techniques and treatment options, as well as assess suicidal or homicidal risk. Officers also provide guidance around legal statutes and processes.

Residents in crisis can call 911 and request help from BHRT.

McNeil noted that as people become more aware of the program over time, “they’re able to articulate their needs a little bit better” when they call 911 and request for the BHRT team to respond to the situation. Police officers can also refer people experiencing mental-health crises to BHRT for support and resources such as treatment, medical care and prescriptions, as well as information about food pantries, shelters and more. 

How did the program work in its second year?

The report states that 911 operators received 2,357 calls coded as mental-health calls in 2022, adding that 1,220 people had been contacted by BHRT or contact had been attempted.

From the report, lead BHRT mental-health clinician Williams said, “More than anything, we want the community to know that they can trust us when they call 911.” 

Data for persons served by the program show that a majority are people of color, with most of those being Black. According to the report, 701 persons were identified as Black, 435 were white and 25 were Hispanic and 23 were Asian. One hundred and sixty-six individuals were houseless or living in temporary housing.

GPD police chief John Thompson spoke with TCB at a community meeting in February about how the program has made a difference in how 911 calls are responded to, as the BHRT team can help divert or minimize police presence when someone calls 911 for a mental-health emergency. Before BHRT, Thompson said that when people called 911 for a mental-health crisis, police officers were the ones sent on those types of calls.

“That’s not a fire call, that’s not an EMS call,” Thompson said. “So who do they send? The police. We’re the only resource. Now BHRT gives us an added resource.”

Once the team’s police officers have assessed the situation, sometimes their presence is no longer necessary.

“If there’s no safety issues, they’ll stay in the car and the crisis counselor will go handle the whole thing,” Thompson said.

Thompson also said that officers on the team have a “higher amount of training — so crisis intervention training, a whole litany of other things. They’re higher-trained than just your basic patrol officer.”

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