City DopeNews

Commissioners Examine How Police Respond to Mental Health Calls

Police Chief Cleveland Spruill.

Athens-Clarke County commissioners want more options to respond to mental-health crises, since in the last few years ACC police have shot and killed several people who seemed to be suffering from mental-health issues. They’re considering emulating a Eugene, OR program called CAHOOTS that teams a social worker with a medic, neither one armed.

A study by the ACC Police Department found that more than a third of local jail inmates suffered from mental health or substance abuse problems. Among the clients of Advantage Behavioral Health Systems—a nonprofit that offers mental health and substance abuse services—more than 90% of those in the jail had been arrested multiple times. The average was almost 13. And they stayed in jail an average of 22 days, compared to eight for inmates who were not Advantage clients.

“When they go to jail, not only do they go to jail more frequently, they’re finding it harder to navigate the system to get bond to get out of jail when they do go there,” Police Chief Cleveland Spruill told commissioners at a Mar. 9 work session.

The department already has two teams of Jerry B. NeSmith Behavioral Health Co-Responders, named for the late commissioner who was a strong advocate for mental health. A third will be hired this spring, Spruill said, and he’s requesting four more in the county’s fiscal 2022 budget. 

The co-responders—a police officer and a mental health professional—have had a mixed track record. They did not respond to several shootings in the past few years that seemed to involve mental health issues. But that’s because they’re not available 24/7, and often it’s not apparent from listening to the dispatcher that a call has anything to do with mental health, Spruill said. Last week, a co-responder unit did help to communicate with an armed man who had shot himself and to convince him to let himself be treated by emergency medical personnel.

Several commissioners said they want some alternative to armed police responding to calls involving mental health. In some cases, the presence of an armed officer could even exacerbate the situation, Commissioner Melissa Link said. Commissioner Carol Myers suggested that, while there’s probably some overlap between the calls CAHOOTS and the ACC co-responders answer, not all of them are the same.

Spruill disagreed, saying that not sending an armed officer could endanger lives. And he emphasized that CAHOOTS teams collaborate with police and won’t answer some calls without an officer present. “When you call 911, when you call the police, you’re calling because you want the police,” he said. But he added that he’s open to some sort of separate hotline to call when police aren’t wanted on the scene.

Commissioner Tim Denson called CAHOOTS “more subtle and nimble” than co-responders but said he wanted both. “How do we have the best policy response in the world, honestly?” he said.

Also at the work session, commissioners and staff discussed potential pay raises for police, a bike lane on Barber Street, turning a parking lot next door to the Costa Building near City Hall into a park and potential locations for “eco-stations” where downtown businesses can store rollcarts, rather than leaving trash bags on the sidewalk.