Durham tackles mental health crises in new ways as law enforcement agencies seek change

Samantha Kummerer Image
Thursday, June 30, 2022
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Durham's new pilot program 'HEARTS' to be the first in the state to send unarmed mental health professionals to 911 calls.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- It wasn't a police vehicle and an officer that responded on Wednesday when some Durham residents reached out for help. Instead, a white minivan and three unarmed individuals arrived on the scene.

The team is made up of a mental health clinician, peer support specialist, and emergency medical technician. The trio is not clad in a uniform but jeans and 'HEART' t-shirts.

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

The program is taking a multipronged approach to add mental health resources to public safety. Clinicians will be embedded into the 911 call center, respond without officers and complete follow-up calls.

"We are super excited that this program is coming here to Durham. In my years of public safety experience, I've often seen that sometimes we send the response that we send just because it's all that we could do," explained John Zimmerman, the operation administrator of the Durham Community Safety Department.

The individuals that responded without police on Wednesday will handle low-threat calls, like calls related to trespassing, suicide threats, homelessness, and well-being checks.

Abena Bediako is one of the clinical managers with the Durham Community Safety Department. She's lived in Durham for 14 years and made the shift from community-based therapy to assisting law enforcement officers.

"I wanted to be a bridge if possible between the community in which I live and serve and the folks who have to take calls and have to protect," she explained. "And to bring a greater level of understanding and healing between the communities."

Bediako previously served as a clinician with the Durham Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team. She said there were incidences that arose where she wished she had the type of resources the city is deploying now.

"We were already told by a few community members that they were excited and that they were happy that we're here," she said. Her team responded to four trespassing calls on Wednesday morning.

Later this summer, counselors will respond alongside officers on calls that come with a higher threat risk.

The goal is to reduce the number of repeat 911 calls for the same unmet needs and to free up officers' time.

"One of our primary 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 and is important," Zimmerman said.

The program's launch comes at a time when communities across the country are discussing how to reimagine public safety.

Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews told City Council in May the department has had less than five incidents in the last decade that involved police shooting at individuals who were in mental distress.

Earlier this month, a Hartnett County Sheriff's deputy shot and killed Curtis Young who was carrying a weapon while having a mental-health crisis.

A previous ABC11 I-Team investigation analyzed around 100 officer-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents across central North Carolina. The I-Team found at least 39% of incidents involved a person experiencing a mental health crisis or a person with a history of mental illness.

This is part of the reason advocates are pushing for better resources to handle calls where the individual is having a mental-health crisis.

"I worry that we're still sticking with the same entity that's not really trained nor designed to take care of people in mental crisis," said Fayetteville PACT founder Shawn McMillian.

For years, the Chapel Hill Police Department employed mental health counselors who responded to calls alongside police. Last fall the Raleigh Police Department started a team called ACORN that involves officers and social workers who specialize in homelessness, mental health issues, and substance use.

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

Some advocates, like McMillian, said while these efforts are one step, communities need to take the badge out of the response.

"I think for adding liaisons, that's great, but I don't think we should throw police at the homeless issue either. I think there are probably people in the mental health field, people that can provide social services that are better equipped to do that," he said.