Durham is tackling mental health crises in new ways as law enforcement seeks change

DURAM, North Carolina (WTVD) – A non-police vehicle and a police officer responded Wednesday when some Durham residents called for help. Instead, a white minivan and three unarmed men arrived on the scene.

The team consists of a mental health clinician, peer support specialist and emergency medical technician. The trio is not wearing a uniform, but with “HEART” jeans and T-shirts.

HEART is the name of the city’s new pilot program, which the city claims is the first in the state to send unarmed mental health professionals to 911 calls.

The program takes a multifaceted approach to adding mental health resources to public safety. Clinicians will be integrated into the call center of 911, will answer without staff and will make follow-up calls.

“We are very excited that this program is coming here in Durham. In my years of experience in public safety, I’ve often seen that sometimes we send the answers we send just because that’s all we can do, “said John Zimmerman, operational administrator of the public safety department in Durham.

Those who responded without police on Wednesday will handle low-threat calls, such as border-related calls, suicide threats, homelessness and welfare checks.

Abena Beziaco is one of the clinical managers in the community safety department in Durham. She has lived in Durham for 14 years and has made the shift from community therapy to law enforcement support.

“I wanted to be a bridge, if possible, between the community in which I live and serve and the people who have to take the calls and have to defend,” she explained. “And bring a higher level of understanding and healing between communities.”

Previously, Beziaco worked as a clinician on the Durham Police Crisis Response Team. She said there were cases that arose when she wanted to have the kind of resources that the city currently has.

“Several members of the community have already told us that they are excited and happy that we are here,” she said. Her team responded to four border violations on Wednesday morning.

Later this summer, advisers will answer calls with employees who come with a higher risk of threat.

The aim is to reduce the number of repeat calls to 911 for the same unmet needs and to free up staff time.

“One of our main goals is to send the most appropriate response to those in crisis. The safety of our community, the safety of our residents and neighbors is very important, and the safety of our responders is important,” Zimmerman said.

The launch of the program comes at a time when communities across the country are discussing how to rethink public safety.

Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews told the City Council in May that the department had had fewer than five incidents in the past decade, involving police shootings on people who were mentally ill.

Earlier this month, Hartnett County Sheriff’s Deputy shot and killed Curtis Young, who was carrying a gun while in a mental health crisis.

A previous ABC11 I-Team investigation analyzed about 100 incidents involving shootings and the use of force in central North Carolina. I-Team found that at least 39% of the incidents involved a person who had experienced a mental health crisis or a person with a history of mental illness.

This is part of the reason why advocates are pushing for better resources to deal with calls when an individual has a mental health crisis.

“I’m worried we’re still sticking to the same person who’s not really trained or designed to care for people in a mental crisis,” said Fayetteville PACT founder Sean McMillan.

For years, mental health counselors worked at Chapel Hill Police Department, answering calls with police. Last fall, the Raleigh Police Department set up a team called ACORN, which includes staff and social workers who specialize in homelessness, mental health issues and substance use.

The Fayetteville Police Department recently added funding for a homelessness and mental health link.

Some advocates, such as Macmillan, said that while these efforts are one step, communities should remove the badge from the response.

“I think it’s great to add connections, but I don’t think we should throw in the police on the issue of the homeless either. I think there are probably people in the field of mental health, people who can provide social services, who are better prepared to do that, “he said.

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