Inside ACORNS: RPD's new team for mental health crisis response

Joel Brown Image
Thursday, November 18, 2021
Inside ACORNS: RPD's new team for mental health crisis response
Five officers and three social workers form ACORNS. They're tasked with helping three groups in every corner of Raleigh: people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and substance use.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It was a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement -- defund the police. But what serious criminal-justice-reform activists were really asking for was moving some money and resources away from police departments for calls where a mental health or crisis intervention professional might be a better option than an armed officer of the law. Three months ago, Raleigh Police Department launched ACORNS.

It stands for Addressing Crisis through Outreach, Referrals, Networking and Service.

Raleigh Police Sgt. Renae Lockhart is a 19-year RPD veteran with a Masters's degree in social work. She's one of the lead members of the department's newest unit. ACORNS is a small team: Five officers and three social workers tasked with helping three groups in every corner of Raleigh: people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and substance use.

Lockhart has heard the criticism that police officers shouldn't be the ones responding to those types of calls.

"I've heard that before. And that's when I say we're not given enough credit," Lockhart said. "There are some of us, like myself, who have backgrounds and specialties in social work and understand the need to help and assist."

Detective Wendy Clark helped develop the ACORNS unit as it hit the streets in August.

"What we're doing is the follow-up work. We're doing the wrap-around services," Clark said. "We're going to wrap our arms around them. We're going to connect them with services; try to figure out who they need to be connected with."

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After an interaction on the streets with a traditional beat officer, ACORNS moves in after the fact to find the person involved to get them connected with community resources. Connected to resources including Oak City Cares for people experiencing homelessness or Healing Transitions for someone struggling with substance abuse.

"Being able to get referrals for those folks first on the scene, to get that person that's in crisis care and then further linkage to treatment -- that's huge. That was the missing element for a while," said Justin Garrity, director of recovery services at Healing Transitions.

Oak City Cares volunteer coordinator Laura Martin added, "Before (ACORNS) existed, if we got into an altercation in the street because I was off my meds, I would be arrested. And I'd go to jail or prison and it would take a really long time for me to connect back to the community that was helping me toward recovery or medication management."

At the most recent meeting of Raleigh's Police Advisory Board, the citizen-led panel formed to build trust between police and community, some members bristled at the ACORNS approach.

There are still fresh memories of Soheil Mojorrad, a Raleigh man with mental-health challenges shot and killed by RPD. Or Kyron Hinton, who was severely beaten by officers in a Raleigh street in the midst of a mental-health episode.

"It's just a bit troubling, just the number of armed and badged officers we're sending to these folks that are experiencing crisis," remarked police advisory board member Greear Webb.

Other critics would like the city devote money to crisis response teams separate and apart from the police department - because of the fears and mistrust of police in many marginalized communities.

Azalea Garza has always been a social worker. Since August, she's been a social worker for RPD's ACORNS unit.

When asked if armed police officers should be a part of the mental health crisis response process, Garza paused a moment, then said, "When I see the officers that I work with, I don't see the armed officers. I don't see the regular blue and white. I see a person who cares."

Just three months in, ACORNS is a small unit. It has aspirations to get larger.

In the recent police advisory board meeting, RPD Chief Stella Patterson said she was proud that in addition to the ACORNS program, all RPD recruits are trained in crisis intervention in the academy. But, she later acknowledged that just over half of the department's 800 officers currently have the training.