Winston-Salem activists who have been calling for defunding law enforcement departments and alternatives to policing may see a favorable change in their city within the next year and a half.

On Monday evening, during the monthly public safety meeting, several committee members expressed interest in implementing an alternative response model for 911 calls involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. The conversation was a continuation from January’s meeting in which members of the Forsyth County Police Accountability and Reallocation Coalition called on the committee to divert police department funds to create a separate mental health crisis intervention unit. During Monday’s meeting, Scott Tesh, the director of the city’s office of performance and accountability, outlined three possible routes the city could take when dealing with individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis. The first is the law enforcement only model, which is the one that the city currently uses where only police respond to the scene; the second, a co-response model in which both police officers and mental health professionals have the ability to respond to the scene; and the final option, an alternative response model in which mental health professionals respond to the call by themselves and have the option to call the police for back up if needed.

While councilperson Kevin Mundy of the Southwest Ward expressed skepticism for reallocation of police funds in January, during Monday’s meeting Mundy went as far as to say that he was now “leaning heavily towards” an alternative response model. Councilperson Barbara Burke of the Northeast Ward also expressed interest in moving forward with the option of having mental health professionals respond to mental health crises calls.

“More cities are turning to the alternative response model,” Burke said. “Even those cities that started out with the co-response model, they are moving to the alternative response model.”

However, not all of the committee members expressed outright support for a change. Like in last month’s meeting, councilmember John Larson of the South Ward remained concerned about the delineation of responsibility between the city and county when it comes to mental health services and councilperson Annette Scippio of the East Ward brought up potential costs of the program and asked what other factors like homelessness could affect the number of mental-health related calls.

To answer some of these questions and appropriately assess how to implement a potential program, the city has partnered with RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, which will be tasked with analyzing the city’s 911 call data from the last three years. The initiative, which has been dubbed the 911 Calls For Service Project, includes other cities in the state as well, such as Burlington, Greensboro, Cary, Durham and Raleigh. The project, according to city assistant manager Tasha Logan Ford, will take place in four phases across 18 months: Phase I will be collecting calls for service data, Phase 2 will involve exploring different responses including the alternative response model, Phase 3 will see an implementation of a pilot program and Phase IV would be an evaluation of the pilot program.

“A lot of it is determining the volume of calls,” Ford said in a phone call on Tuesday. “If we’re making changes to how the police department responds to these types of calls, we want to make sure we have something in place so citizens don’t fall through the cracks.”

Currently, Ford said that the city is in Phase I but has already begun parts of Phase 2 which include researching the different models.

The alternative response model gained national attention after Eugene, Ore. successfully implemented their CAHOOTS model in which mental health professionals began responding to certain calls for service. According to the city’s presentation, the city of Eugene saw a 5-8 percent diversion rate and an estimated $8.5 million in law enforcement savings.

As of last year, Greensboro has been using a co-response model in which police can call mental health professionals to the scene if needed, but the city is also included in the calls for service project to review 911 call data.

Two individuals with the Forsyth County Police Accountability and Reallocation Coalition spoke during Monday’s meeting in favor of an alternative response model. Selene Johnson, a board-certified behavior analyst, pointed out that the very presence of law enforcement officers on site can escalate a situation and further stress out individuals experiencing a crisis.

“Professionals who are fully trained in mental health crisis have been shown to have the opposite effect,” Johnson said. “Calming, deescalating and redirecting…Your training and demeanor are what ultimately create the feeling or circumstance that creates that escalation.”

Johnson, who regularly works with those in crisis, said that she has never had to carry a gun or pepper spray for her job and pointed out that those experiencing a mental health crisis may not be able to comply with police officers in the moment because of their enhanced stress. Jillian Neill, a licensed psychologist who is also part of the coalition, noted the other ways that the city could save money if they implement such a program.

“Other sources of cost saving tend to be, one, people can get connected with services which diverts the cost of repeated calls,” Neill said. “When police are not involved in mental health response there tends to be a less likely chance of involuntary commitment or commitment to the hospital generally so crisis counselors are more well equipped to keep people out of the hospital.”

While any implementation of a new response model would not happen any time soon, Assistant City Manager Ford said that the city is already working with RTI in the calls for service research portion and has already researched different models the city could implement. Once the city has collected 911 data from RTI, staff will work to come up with specific program ideas that they will present to the committee.

“It’s too soon to tell now…but we do know that there is a lot of community support for an alternative response model and there seems to be come support from the committee as well,” Ford said. “We’re keenly aware that there are different ways that we can respond to our residents. For the city to become a part of this cohort I think is important because it helps us understand the needs versus taking something from another city and just putting it here. The residents’ needs drive what we’re doing here.”

The next public safety committee meeting takes place on March 15 at 6 p.m. and can be viewed on the city’s website.

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