Greensboro’s co-response policing model has been running for nearly three years. Started in December 2020, the city’s Behavioral Health Response Team — or BHRT — pairs mental health professionals with police officers to respond to mental-health related calls for service.

During Greensboro’s city council work session on Thursday, Office of Community Safety Manager Latisha McNeil — who oversees the team — shared some updates with the city’s mayor and councilmembers. The Office of Community Safety was created in September 2022, and BHRT was placed under the purview of the office.

BHRT has eight members, McNeil said. A team lead, assistant team lead, five crisis counselors and one person who does outreach. According to previous reporting by Triad City Beat, there are nine police officers who are trained to be a part of BHRT.

McNeil said that within the Office of Community Safety’s first year, BHRT responded to more than 1,700 calls and tackled 3,500 hours of case management. Their shifts run 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.

Juggling all the hours and responsibilities, it’s no easy task for this small team to tackle.

“They are busy,” McNeil said.

Notably, there have been 500 overdose calls; 48 have been connected to BHRT.

In October, TCB reported a surge in drug overdoses — at least 15 in just two weeks. McNeil said that they will be working with GPD to develop an overdose response team.

What’s next?

Councilmembers and city officials think that the team needs to expand.

At-large councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter lauded BHRT’s presence at these types of scenes. They help to prevent “reactive” responses from people who might be worried that they’re going to get arrested if they call 911.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan agreed, saying, “The one complaint I get is that there aren’t enough of them, and that they need them evenings and weekends.”

In October, BHRT Team Lead Erin Williams told TCB that “at the minimum, BHRT needs to be twice the size that it currently is.”

“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.”

District 3 councilmember Zack Matheny encouraged city staff to “double the size of BHRT in next year’s budget.”

In neighboring Winston-Salem, a police-free response called the BEAR Team has found support. It’s been so successful that the city has decided to expand it and will be adding four new members to the team soon.

As reported by TCB in October, Greensboro’s Police Chief John Thompson wants to expand BHRT so they can have a “non-police response to mental-health calls” just like Winston-Salem.

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

“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.”

One area where the co-response team has been “heavily utilized” is with the city’s unsheltered population, McNeil said. The team has had 667 interactions with 313 unhoused individuals. Calls for unsheltered individuals make up 12 percent of the total interactions and 17 percent of the total caseload.

Assistant City Manager Trey Davis said that one of the concerns McNeil brought to him in the past was the high volume of calls for unsheltered people, and that the team was “being taken away from the original purpose of BHRT, which is to co-respond with police to calls related to mental health.

“They’re not able to get to 100 percent of those calls,” Davis said.

More help from county?

In order to successfully help people in all aspects of society, more help is needed, city councilmembers said.

“It looks like we have walked into the vacuum of street outreach that has been created in our community,” councilmember Tammi Thurm remarked on Thursday.

Councilmembers such as Thurm don’t believe that the county is pitching in their fair share.

During a council meeting in October, councilmembers expressed frustration over the pressure that’s been placed on the city, suggesting that other parties should also be held responsible for helping the city’s unhoused. Thurm said that they “pussyfoot around about who should be doing this work.”

“We might as well say it: This is a county function. This is not a city function,” she added.

She added, “Until the pressure is on the county to do something, we’re going to be in the same position.”

Thurm maintained her stance at Thursday’s meeting, saying, “This is, once again, something that we need to discuss with the county about funding.”

This year, Guilford County’s Continuum of Care requested more than $3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. This is part of the government organization’s yearly Notice of Funding Opportunity, or NOFO.

These dollars would fund 14 projects, ranging from programs run by the Greensboro Housing Authority to the Salvation Army to Partners Ending Homelessness. Many of these organizations received HUD funding last year, according to county documents.

Councilmembers such as Matheny and Thurm were critical of street outreach groups who aim to help the unhoused, saying that they don’t see them doing the work in Center City Park, for example, where Matheny said he spends a lot of time and meets many unsheltered people.

“I invite anyone who’s doing street outreach, go do it because we ain’t seeing it,” Matheny said. “BHRT, that’s the most successful thing we’ve got in that regard,” Matheny added, reiterating his stance on doubling the team: “If that’s the case we should take them from 8 to 16.”

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