Featured photo: BEAR response car for Winston-Salem (screenshot)

Winston-Salem’s BEAR Team has been in action since May 15. 

Housed within the fire department, the team of seven crisis counselors offer an alternative to law enforcement for 911 calls related to non-violent mental health crises, substance use and domestic disputes. The team is part of a national movement to reimagine the involvement of armed officers after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked an international conversation around policing in 2020.

During Monday’s public safety committee meeting, Director Kristin Ryan gave an update to council members.

Ryan said that they’ve had clients of all age demographics from children to seniors.

Between May 15 and Aug. 7, the team received 526 calls — which Ryan said equates to 580 hours of crisis intervention time with counselors — and went on 132 follow-up responses. The team spent 343 hours on follow-up responses and has an average response time of 16 minutes and three seconds. 

One essential part of the team’s follow-up care is their collaboration with community partners and service providers, Ryan said. 

“Not only do we do a response,” Ryan said, “we make sure we’re following up to make sure that the individual that we do the crisis intervention with is doing well and following up with the services we recommend.”

“We don’t go away until we know that they’re safe,” Ryan added, noting that the team averages 239 calls per month.

The BEAR initiative is a 1-year pilot program financed through $700,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funding. The decision to implement the pilot came after the city conducted research through RTI International to analyze 911-call data and the organization recommended the alternative response model.

Some cities such as Greensboro use a co-response team where mental health professionals and police answer calls together, but Winston-Salem’s BEAR Team has no police presence. With an already understaffed police force, the program brings trained professionals to the scene of a mental health crisis instead of utilizing police officers. 

Northwest Ward representative Jeff MacIntosh lauded the team’s efficiency during Ryan’s presentation, saying, “From an efficacy standpoint, seven BEAR Team members saves us a bunch of money and time when it comes to the amount of police effort that we would have to send in their direction.” 

Fire Chief Trey Mayo told Triad City Beat that he was impressed with the team’s breadth of capabilities and praised the work they’ve done thus far.

The BEAR Team also assists in relocating unhoused individuals and helping them access resources. The Clark Campbell Transportation Center area on Fifth Street is where many of the city’s unhoused population congregates, and Ryan mentioned that they are working toward serving that area on a weekly basis. In June, Winston-Salem Transit Authority staff brought concerns to city hall regarding issues with “non-riders” at the transportation center who are there for “hours and hours.” Loitering, long-term stay, use of illegal substances, restroom facility abuse and verbal and physical altercations were among the complaints. During the June 12 meeting, WSTA staff said they planned to bring a revised version of their Code of Conduct to the City Council in August of this year.

The best way to reach the BEAR Team is by calling 911 and requesting the team, or by calling them directly at 336-705-3668.

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