In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, cities around the country have been considering what alternative models of policing may look like. Greensboro is no exception.
The city initially started a co-response program in 2019 in which they partnered with the nonprofit SEL Group, short for Social Emotional Learning. Greensboro’s model is a co-response one in which mental-health professionals respond in tandem with police to calls involving persons undergoing mental health crises. Towards the end of 2020, the city developed its own behavioral response team, or BHRT, and ended its relationship with SEL. The department now has six counselors as part of the program. The city of Winston-Salem is considering a similar program.
Since the new version of the program began earlier this year, BHRT has answered 3,274 calls for service according to Trey Davis, one of the city’s assistant managers. The city is also slated to receive $330,000 from the recently passed state budget to expand the program. If the funds are approved, Davis said, they would be used for paying salaries, purchasing equipment and adding a medical component to the program.
“In a co-response model, behavioral health specialists, also called clinicians, respond in partnership with law enforcement on mental health-related calls that would otherwise be handled solely by law enforcement,” Davis explained via email. “This allows for better and more comprehensive service delivery for our citizens in a mental health crisis.”
According to Davis, the kinds of calls that the counselors assist on include ones where persons may be suicidal or to help serve involuntary commitment papers. Data for persons served by the program show that a majority are people of color, with a most of those being Black. According to data provided by Davis, 59 percent of those served were Black, 36 identified as white while Hispanics made up 3 percent and Asian and bi-racial just 1 percent.
And this points to part of the reason why the program was started in the first place. In September 2018, Greensboro police hogtied and killed Marcus Deon Smith, a homeless Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis in downtown Greensboro. After Smith’s killing, hogtying was banned by the department and alternative policing models were researched by the city.
A Oct. 2020 report by TCB also found that the majority of police killings in the Triad in the last decade have involved Black victims, many of whom were also undergoing mental health crises.
“The Greensboro Police Department and the city of Greensboro are continually evaluating the best way to address the ever-changing and constantly evolving landscape related to mental health and our residents,” Davis said. “We believe a co-response model allows us to best serve the needs of our community as well as maintain the safety of those calling for assistance. The most important thing is the safety and well-being of our residents and providing services that best meet their needs and we believe our current co-response model allows us to accomplish that goal.”
Kay Brown, a local activist and a member of the city’s criminal justice advisory committee, noted that she supports the co-response model for now and sees it as a good first step.
“I originally felt that a model without police would be best, but I think that there is still some work that needs to be done with mental health professionals to get more consensus around the implementation of those models,” Brown said in a statement to TCB. “The number of calls that the team has been able to take and resolve has far surpassed expectations and there has been good feedback from the community with the model’s implementation. My hope is that one day we, as a community, can do more preventative work that allows for the removal of police from models like this and make mental healthcare more widely available. But with that being said, the model is a great start and it will take more from local officials prioritizing economic development, proper wages for all residents and funding education to make true long-term impact.”
How exactly does the program work?
As part of the reporting for this story, TCB requested to speak to some of the officers and counselors involved to answer logistical questions of how the program works. Despite multiple requests, GPD Public Information Officer Ron Glenn denied TCB’s requests, stating: “We are not going to make anyone available for an interview at this time.” Glenn did not give a reason for his response. Davis answered the question with the same response.
According to Davis, BHRT officers are dispatched through Guilford Metro 911 “based on information provided to the telecommunicator during the call and available resources.”
Davis also noted that “all GPD officers are trained and prepared to respond to any call type. All officers receive specific training related to de-escalation, communication skills, procedural justice, implicit bias and dealing with individuals with mental illness or developmental disabilities.”
However, it seems that some mental health-related calls do fall through the cracks.
One such instance involved Joseph Lopez who was shot and killed by Greensboro police officer ME Hamilton on Nov. 19. According to Lopez’s father, the 29-year-old was diagnosed with bipolar disease as a child. Lopez also had a previous run-in with the police just days before he was shot and killed, in which he barricaded himself in a room in the house where he was allegedly staying. During that incident, Lopez was safely coaxed out of the room and was arrested, then released with a promise to appear in court.
This is why some activists in the community are pushing for an alternative response model in which only behavioral health professionals respond to certain kinds of calls. Popularized in Eugene, Ore., the CAHOOTS model is one such example.
According to a January article in the Psychiatry Times, the CAHOOTS model involves the dispatch of teams of two people — one crisis intervention worker who is trained in de-escalation and one medical professional. The way the program works is that 911 dispatchers send the CAHOOTS team rather than calling the police which the article states “can also be costly and intimidating for the patient.”
Data collected by the White Bird Clinic, the organization that partners with the city of Eugene to operate CAHOOTS, notes that in 2019, the program responded to approximately 24,000 calls with police backup requested only 250 times. The program has also saved an estimated average of $8 million on public safety and $14 million for ambulance/emergency room treatment annually.
In an emailed statement, Jess St. Louis with Guilford For All, a collective of organizers based in Greensboro, noted that they want the city to move to models like CAHOOTS where police aren’t involved.
“We want real solutions that expand community safety,” Louis wrote. “The co-response model that Chief Brian James and the GPD are doing doesn’t solve the problem that armed police officers may not only escalate the situation, but harm our neighbors, like they did with Marcus Smith. Instead, Guilford For All members overwhelmingly voted for a platform that calls for our city and county leaders to invest in real solutions that provide an alternative to the police department and expand our options…. We look forward to working with city leaders to win real solutions that expand our options and make our communities safer.”