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W-S considering alternative response models for law enforcement

W-S considering alternative response models for law enforcement
February 17
13:46 2021

The City of Winston-Salem is considering adopting an alternative response model to address 911 calls that involve individuals dealing with mental health issues.

Talks about police funding and procedures have been discussed in cities across the country since last summer, following the murder of George Floyd while being detained by police officers in Minneapolis. Locally, several organizations, including the Forsyth County Police Accountability and Reallocation Coalition (FCPARC), have been formed and have called for the city council to defund the Winston-Salem Police Department (WSPD) and implement response methods that don’t involve law enforcement. 

In response to the calls for change, on Monday, Feb. 8, the Public Safety Committee listened to a presentation that outlined two alternative response models. Currently the WSPD uses the “law enforcement only” response model. Typically the officers that respond to mental health calls have had crisis intervention training.

One of the alternative models calls for a co-response, where both police and a mental health professional respond to calls. The other model, which is referred to as the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) model, calls for mental health professionals to respond alone, but they can still call on law enforcement as needed. 

Research provided on the CAHOOTS model which was first adopted in Eugene, Ore. in 1989, shows that in 2019, between 5% and 8% of all calls were diverted and the department has saved an estimated $8.5 million. “The program has been so successful that the police department believes there are people who call just to get a service that you otherwise wouldn’t call 911 for,” said Scott Tesh, director of Winston-Salem’s Office of Performance and Accountability. 

In recent years several other cities across the country have transitioned to the Co-Response or CAHOOTS model, including Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh. Several cities have also adopted “Civilian Response” opportunities that diverts “non-urgent” calls that may not need law enforcement. “Oakland, Calif., City Council was looking at ways they could do this and most recently there was an article in Governing Magazine where this came up in the city of Charlotte,” Tesh said. 

“Non-urgent call types being noise complaints, abandoned cars, property damage. Some of those minor infractions where they might be looking at ways to not send law enforcement to respond to those either.”  

 To determine the need for an alternative response model, the city has partnered with RTI International, a non-profit research entity, and they are in the process of doing an analysis of all 911 calls. The goal of the analysis is to better understand the community’s needs, identify the best alternative response strategy for the city, and support implementation of an alternative strategy. According to representatives from RTI, the analysis will be broken down into four different phases and will take about 18 months to complete.

Following the presentation by Tesh and others, Selene Johnson, who is a certified behavior analyst, shared her thoughts on the alternative models. 

Johnson said in the nearly 30 years that she has worked in the field, she has never needed a weapon to defend herself and only had to call law enforcement once, and even then it was only because she thought a young man was going to run into the street. Johnson said estimates show at least 25% of all fatal law enforcement encounters involve people with mental illness. She said oftentimes the loss of life could’ve been avoided. “In my 28 years of experience working in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health, I have never carried or needed a weapon, a taser, pepper spray or handcuffs despite the fact I have supported hundreds of people, including young adults in behavioral crisis,” Johnson continued. 

“Why are people with mental illness and disabilities at an increased risk for these fatal encounters? Well, when a police officer interacts with an individual, she or he expects compliance and cooperation; however, a person with a mental disability may not be able to comply. This is often mistaken as a malicious choice to resist, when in fact, the person may lack the understanding or even the physical control.”

Johnson, who is white, said just the presence of law enforcement can further exacerbate a situation, especially for Black and brown people. She said, “Professionals who are fully trained in mental health crises have been shown to have the opposite effect by calming, de-escalating and re-directing.”

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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