Push to replace law enforcement officers with unarmed crisis intervention experts gains momentum

Push to replace law enforcement officers with unarmed crisis intervention experts gains momentum

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The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year helped instigate a new wave of interest in changing policing in the U.S., including new ways to respond to calls that involve people experiencing mental health crises.  

The issue gained additional prominence after officer bodycam footage was released that showed Rochester, N.Y., police handcuffing Daniel Prude, a Black man in a mental health crisis, putting a spit hood over his head and pressing his face onto the pavement. Prude suffocated and died in the hospital after being taken off life support.  

Although North Carolina law enforcement agencies have been using Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, for more than 15 years to learn to respond to people in mental health crises, there’s now a growing belief that it’s unwise for police to respond to every emergency call, especially those involving mental health issues or homelessness. Cities in North Carolina are looking at practices in use around the country where non-police alternatives resulted in fewer arrests.  

A different model attracts growing interest

Durham has started a new Community Safety Department that will eventually hire clinicians to respond to some 911 calls. The department is still in the planning phases, said Ryan Smith, the department’s director, and staff members are learning how these alternatives work in other cities.  

The Community Safety Department is looking at what Smith called a “team-based” approach, with paramedics and licensed social workers or mental health clinicians responding to some emergency calls.  

An early task is understanding what types of emergency calls can best be handled by these teams, Smith said. Another challenge will be figuring out how best to direct people in crises to mental health services.  

The STAR program in Denver, Colo. (short for “Support Team Assistance Response”) has been an inspiration for many communities implementing plans for non-police responses to some emergency calls.

STAR was launched in June 2020 and received a positive evaluation after its first six months. A paramedic-mental health clinician team responded to 748 calls; none resulted in an arrest or a police response.  

It’s important to identify which calls the STAR team could handle, the evaluation said. The STAR team was not designed to respond to violent situations, calls that mention weapons, or serious medical needs, the report said.  

CAHOOTS, for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, is a community policing alternative in Eugene, Ore., that has been responding to some 911 calls for more than 30 years. Dispatchers route some calls involving mental health crises to teams of medics and crisis workers.  

In North Carolina, House Bill 802, would appropriate nearly $2 million in grants over two years to Charlotte, Greenville and Greensboro for pilot STAR programs. The bill has not had a committee hearing since introduction in early May and its chances for inclusion in the House version of the budget are unknown.  

The federal American Rescue Plan has allocated $15 million in planning grants to be awarded through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to states that want to start community mobile crisis programs. 

Advocates at Disability Rights NC will host a panel discussion on Aug. 10 regarding armed responses to mental health crises. “Folks are really running with the STAR model since we’ve got the pilot in Denver that’s been so successful,” said Luke Woollard, a staff attorney with the Disability Rights NC criminal justice team. 

Attorney Luke Woollard

“It’s basically another tool in the tool belt and gets people diverted from jails and emergency rooms,” he said.  

Another measure, House Bill 786, would award grants to law enforcement agencies that establish non-police responses to 911 calls about mental health, substance use, homelessness or other behavioral health crises. The money would fund co-responder teams with law enforcement officers and mental health specialists, and pay for CIT for law enforcement officers and 911 dispatchers.  

Progress and challenges in NC cities

Having mental health specialists and law enforcement officers go together to some calls has become a widely used response to some 911 calls in larger North Carolina cities. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has had a Community Policing Crisis Response Team since 2019. Greensboro has had mental health counselors working alongside police officers since last year. 

Last year, the Raleigh Police Department announced the establishment of a new unit of police officers and social workers that would respond to calls about mental health crises. The unit is called ACORNS, or Addressing Crises Through Outreach, Referrals, Networking, and Service. 

Some observers and advocates have concerns about ACORNS. Greear Webb, a member of the Raleigh Police Advisory Board, is critical of the unit because it still sends armed officers to mental health calls.  

“Other cities are being intentional about sending just mental health counseling units,” he said. “If that’s what’s working, that’s what Raleigh should do.” 

Raleigh and Wake County have experienced multiple controversial incidents involving interactions between law enforcement officers and people with mental illness.

In 2019, Raleigh police officer William Brett Edwards shot and killed a mentally ill man, Soheil Mojarrad. Police said Mojarrad came at the officer with a knife. His family sued the city, the city manager, Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown, and Edwards.  

In 2018, Kyron Hinton was beaten by law enforcement officers in Wake County. A county Sheriff’s Deputy, Cameron Broadwell, sicced his dog on Hinton, who was unarmed and whose mother said was mentally ill. A former state trooper pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Broadwell pleaded guilty to failing to discharge his duties and was fired from his job.  

Among the changes that the Raleigh Demands Justice Coalition called for last year were minority-led community mental health strategies, such as a mental health unit separate from the police department, Webb said.  

“It’s a demand we laid out and are still holding fast to,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like the City Council in Raleigh and others are willing to be intentional when it comes to community safety.” 

Cherene Allen-Caraco

Cherene Allen-Caraco, who founded the Promise Resource Network in Charlotte, said teams of social workers and people who have had mental health challenges would be better equipped to respond to these calls. 

And members of those teams should come from the communities where they work, she said.  

“We misstep on the solutions because they’re being made by people who have no experience with what these things feel like,” she said.  “When you have these teams available, they should represent who’s being served.” 

Allen-Caraco said she has worked with CIT officers and has good relationships with many of them. But sending police officers to respond to mental health crises “misses the boat,” because the calls can end up with a person who is ill getting taken away in handcuffs and involuntarily committed to a hospital.  

“The truth of the matter is, as soon as a police officer arrives, people scatter,” she said. “It creates a level of risk that can be avoided. For issues that are non-criminal, involving the police ups the ante and nobody benefits.”