In Winston-Salem, a new Behavioral Evaluation and Response Team has been established as an alternative to law enforcement involvement in mental-health related calls. By April, the city plans to send crisis counselors to assist with 911 calls that have to do with mental health and substance use. Emergency dispatchers will receive specialized training to determine what kind of response is required when they receive calls related to these issues.

The 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.

Kristin Ryan was hired by the city in January to direct the program. During a Feb. 13 public safety committee meeting, Ryan explained that the BEAR Team will include herself and six other crisis counselors, to be placed at different fire stations throughout Winston-Salem. 

“The BEAR Team will provide compassionate mental-health intervention services,” said Ryan during her presentation, noting that collaboration with all community providers is an essential part of the follow-up care the team will deliver.

Assistant City Manager Patrice Toney mentioned during the meeting that community and mental-health advocates had really encouraged the city to “look at an alternative model to police for mental health 911 calls.”

The push for municipalities to look for alternatives to traditional policing has made national headlines in the last few years, particularly in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020. 

Greensboro’s police department implemented a program called the Behavioral Health Response Team in 2019 that is a co-response model that sends licensed counselors on calls with police officers. According to the RTI International report, Durham and Raleigh all use a co-response model.

In an interview with TCB on Feb. 23 at a community forum, Greensboro Police Chief John Thompson said that sometimes if the officer determines that there are no safety issues, they’ll stay in the police car while the crisis counselor helps the person.

Professor of law and director of the William & Mary Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Reform Kami Chavis spoke about the need for alternative responses to mental health crises. Chavis previously taught at Wake Forest University and directed the university’s Criminal Justice Program.

“Every year a significant number of police-involved deaths or injuries occur,” Chavis said, adding that people are often forced into calling police for help in mental-health situations because “there’s no one else to call, there are no other resources that they can turn to.”

But by having these crisis managers intervene rather than law enforcement, some of these violent instances can be alleviated, Chavis said. 

“They can’t really help us,” she said about officers. “Really all they can do is arrest someone or respond in an authoritarian way.”

Additionally, police officers do often not have specialized training to appropriately interact with people who are experiencing a mental health crisis, Chavis said.

“We need to begin having appropriate remedies and responses for the issues at hand,” she said.

Thompson explained that because a mental health emergency wouldn’t usually be considered a fire or an EMS call, the police are often the ones sent to respond.

“Now BHRT gives us an added resource,” said Thompson

BHRT can be deployed for people in situations like Marcus Smith’s, who died at the hands of eight GPD officers in September 2018. Smith was facing a mental-health crisis at the time of his death and can be heard on body-camera footage asking police officers for help, begging them to “call the ambulance” and take him to the hospital. Instead officers hogtied Smith, who became unresponsive and stopped breathing within minutes. Smith was pronounced dead in the emergency department.

Thompson said there have been “hundreds of incidents” like Smith’s in the past couple of years that “had a better outcome” thanks to BHRT. 

TCB reported that in 2021, the BHRT program responded to 3,274 calls. In 2022, they responded to 2,357.

Thompson also noted that he thinks they have “some room for improvement.”

“We’re all kind of learning from each other too, because this is fairly new for the state of North Carolina,” he said.

In eastern North Carolina, Greenville’s Mobile Crisis Unit has partnered with the police department and sheriff’s office. The Integrated Family Services Mobile Crisis Unit has been available to residents since 2008, but the Reflector reported in 2021 that two co-responders had been specifically assigned to the city’s police department, working with officers to address mental health crisis situations over the phone or by responding to calls. 

The move away from armed officers handling every call that comes through the 911 dispatch has caught on in the last few years because of both the racial reckoning of 2020, but also because departments across the country are short-staffed.

During the Feb. 23 community meeting, Thompson said that while GPD has authorized 691 sworn officers in the police department, they’re 115 officers short.

“That’s a significant amount for us, probably our largest deficit that we’ve seen in staffing,” Thompson noted, adding that “as dire as that sounds… other agencies surrounding us are suffering worse than we are.” Winston-Salem is one of those agencies. During a community forum on Jan. 19, Assistant City Manager Patrice Toney said that the department was short-staffed by 141 sworn officers.

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