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Co-responder programs take root in north metro Atlanta

Mental health specialists aid police in crises cases

ATLANTA — Meagan Wynn recently responded to a call from a witness, who saw a man expose himself in public.

Wynn is a full-time licensed clinician who has been with the Dunwoody Police Department’s co-responder team since July. She’s responsible for behavioral health evaluations and crisis intervention. Wynn also authorizes transport to an emergency receiving facility.

Rather than criminal charges, the call ended in an involuntary treatment for a person exhibiting symptoms posing an imminent threat to themselves or others.

Dunwoody Police spokesman Michael Cheek said the department is familiar with the man from that call. He said officers have run into him more times than they can count.

“He's homeless, he's got some mental health issues, and we have had very little ability to get him the true help that he needs,” Cheek said. “There have been a few times in the past where we have been forced to arrest him because we just really couldn't avoid it.”

While officers were attempting to talk to him, the man couldn’t be convinced to get the help he needed until Wynn showed up at the scene.

In May, the Dunwoody City Council approved the co-responder contract with View Point Health to hire Wynn, who is on-call for incidents involving behavioral health crises. The contract is funded by American Rescue Act II funds for up to three years.

The co-responder team is one of several Police-Mental Health Collaboration programs. The model combines the knowledge of trained police officers and mental health professionals to more effectively respond to behavioral health crises, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Wynn said most of her work concerns follow-up.

“One of Meagan's big responsibilities in these follow-ups is to prevent people from being re-offended and get them the best possible help that we can get,” Cheek said.

Realization and possibilities

Other north metro cities have co-responder programs in place or are well on their way to implementing one. Still others have had preliminary discussions about enacting a similar initiative.

The Forsyth County Sheriff Office’s Crisis Intervention Response Team (CIRT) assists the Cumming Police Department when needed.

The Sheriff Office team has one full-time clinician, Josh Bell, a certified peer specialist. Bell helps review incident reports from the previous night to look for calls that may require a follow-up by CIRT. The team conducts follow-ups as needed or requested and responds to calls for service as they occur in the community.

Established in 2020, Forsyth County’s CIRT operates as a dayshift, Monday through Friday resource. The Sheriff’s Office received a Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to help launch the program.

The Sheriff’s Office partnered with its local community service board, Avita Community Partners, to pair a licensed clinical social worker and certified peer specialist with a specially trained sheriff’s deputy.

Cumming Police car

While Cumming Police Department doesn’t have its own co-responder team, Cumming receives help from the Forsyth County Sheriff Office’s Crisis Intervention Response Team, sheriff officials said.

The idea behind the program is that the Crisis Intervention Response Team can have meaningful conversations to learn the root cause of the incident, looking for unmet needs and gaps in services, sheriff’s officials said. If the call results in an involuntary treatment, CIRT is responsible for a follow-up to talk with subjects about any additional resources that may be needed.

In the past, CIRT worked with those in crisis to schedule appointments for services, coordinated with local nonprofits for food and clothing. Team members even drove them to appointments and resource providers, sheriff’s officials said.

CIRT also trains deputies how to respond to mental illness in the community.

“This has raised the agency’s proficiency level as a whole,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote in an email.

It said it has seen a reduction in certain categories of mental health flagged inmates by half.

Officer training

Alpharetta Police Public Information Officer David Freeman said the department has been researching all aspects of a new co-responder program. While the department doesn’t have a co-responder team, Freeman said that over 40 percent of the force are Crisis Intervention Team trained and that the number continues to grow.

Meanwhile in Sandy Springs, police spokesman Sgt. Matthew McGinnis said the department hasn’t found the right partnership for a co-responder team. But, it is researching different approaches, he said.

Roswell does not have a co-responder program in place. Public Information Officer Timothy Lupo said the department is discussing intent to build out a future program with local law enforcement partners. He also said that mental health and crisis intervention training is highly prioritized for Roswell officers, with the department having a “nearly-100%” rate of officers who have received the state’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.

If co-responder teams haven’t been established, police can use Georgia’s new Mental Health Parity Act that went into effect July 1. The act allows officers to take people into protective custody for a mental health evaluation without the need for criminal charges. Before the act was passed, officers couldn’t take people into treatment without some violation of the law.

Officers also have access to Mobile Crisis Services, a program available at all hours administered through the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities.

Milton Police Chief Rich Austin stated he’s used the program for a handful of mental health-related calls. But, he said that the program isn’t a viable option for immediate safety concerns because its average response time is within an hour.

The Milton Police Department has discussed Johns Creek Police’s Clinician and Officer Response Team program as a possible model to pursue, Austin said.

Johns Creek proposes clinician

With a part-time mental health advocate already on staff, the Johns Creek Police Department is looking to hire a full-time clinician.

The advocate has been with the department for a little over a year, Johns Creek Officer Robert Hall said. The advocate, a former minister, primarily works with people who have made suicidal threats to connect them to counseling services, Hall said.

Johns Creek Police used to have a part-time clinician.

In 2020, the city approved a partnership with Behavioral Healthcare Link to provide the part-time clinician to work alongside Johns Creek police. The partnership formed the Clinician Officer Response Team. But, because Behavioral Healthcare Link was experiencing staffing issues, the clinician was frequently in and out of the office, according to statements provided in the 2023 budget draft.

Johns Creek police car

The proposed full-time role will exist to act as a liaison between the city and various social service agencies, providing follow-up and monitoring of cases upon request from department members or from cases referred to police from other sources, according to the budget draft.

Funding for the full-time position would come from the city’s general fund. Hall said government grants often require audits, whereas a direct hire doesn’t.

The City Council will consider the budget for adoption on Sept. 12.

When asked if he sees a co-responder team as a long-term preventative measure, Hall said the co-responder team can only do so much.

“It’s like leading a horse to water,” he said. “They can drink it, or you know…”

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Reach Amber Perry at 770-847-8334. Follow her on Twitter @ambermarieperry