RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Raleigh Police Department launched a new unit aimed at better connecting residents to resources last August.
The team coined ACORNS combines social workers and officers. The ABC11 I-Team obtained data that details what types of calls the unit has responded to and what impact it's made.
The unit aims to help anyone in crisis, not just those experiencing mental-health-related challenges, but part of its inception stemmed partially from a demand for more resources to handle mental-health-related calls.
How police manage calls related to mental health remains a top issue in communities across the nation. Departments are adding counselors and unarmed responders to their ranks as they attempt to find a solution. Yet, injuries and fatalities continue to occur when North Carolina officers respond to calls involving mental health.
Data obtained by the I-Team show rarely is RPD's ACORNS unit assisting with calls related to suicide or involuntary commitments. Only 12 of the 680 calls the team assisted with over the last year were connected with mental commitments and zero suicide calls. In contrast, Raleigh officers handled over a 1,000 suicide-related calls and more than 3,200 calls related to mental commitments.
Instead, a majority (60%) of the calls ACORNS members respond to are labeled as "follow-up investigation."
"Our patrol officers are able to go and encounter somebody and during their crisis moment, and then they reach out to us and they say this person or this family is really struggling and they need extra help," RPD officer Madeline Horner and ACORNS member explained. "We spend a lot of time after the crisis moment is over helping to build a platform so that they don't have a repeat crisis."
Documents show some of this involves providing transportation and housing. Numerous instances of connecting people to treatment programs and working with community partners are documented. The unit has also paid for medications and bus tickets for those in need.
"We are the gap filler. There's a lot of individuals who don't even realize that they are having a crisis moment until there's a law enforcement connection," Horner said. "We're able to interact with some individuals who are having their crisis moment and then help them work through and past that crisis moment into a more stable environment that otherwise they may never have been connected because they'd never knew they needed connections before that moment."
Horner got her master's degree in clinical counseling and psychology and also saw the needs of Raleigh firsthand while serving as a patrol officer.
"There are a lot of officers who tried to do as much follow up but there's not always time or even the knowledge to know which service providers to try and connect these people to, so it's been a learning process for us all of making the networking connections and connecting the service providers to each other," she said.
Local activists and attorney Dawn Blagrove regularly work with families of victims who are injured and killed by police across the Triangle. She said all the families wished a mental health professional would have been involved during the incident.
"No one I've ever spoken to has said, 'I am so happy that there was no one there to connect with my loved one who was having probably the worst day of their lives on an emotional level, so that this situation could have been de-escalated and that my loved one would have had the chance to overcome whatever demons they were fighting,'" she explained.
While she believes the resources ACORNS provides are needed, she doesn't believe this service should be connected with the police department.
"That is a fantastic use of resources and use of city taxpayer dollars. However, it is unnecessary and counterproductive to filter that money through law enforcement, when there are agencies that already exist independent of law enforcement that could provide those services," she said. Blagrove explained tying these resources to the department may defer populations that are disproportionately impacted by police or have a negative relationship.
Blagrove said she believes real change won't come until there is systematic change.
"Much of these attempts are going to be Band-Aids until we truly commit to divesting our safety from law enforcement. At that point, we will really be able to think creatively and freely about ways to create real safe communities. Most of these programs are simply knee-jerk responses," she said.
Horner said she believes tying these resources to the police department has a positive impact.
"I think utilizing police as a community partner is important and allows us to engage with the community and handle the crisis moment because sometimes that is the first time that these people are encountering a need in the first place. So allowing us to handle the crisis moment and allowing us to help navigate some of the legal things that might have come out as part of that moment and allowing us the opportunity to show our investment in the community is important," Horner said.
The ACORNS unit has not made any arrests or issued any citations.