Chattanooga police launch new mental health co-response unit

February 13 – Highlighted by local instances of police brutality, the nationwide responses to the death of Georgia Floyd sparked a series of protests and calls for law enforcement reform in Chattanooga in the summer of 2020.

Chattanooga Police Department leaders said they were listening and, as part of their response, launched a new pilot program to respond to mental health crisis calls using a portion of a nearly $1 million grant from Volunteer Behavioral Health. .

“This is another way to instill the work and build a relationship with the community, so they can see us as a resource and not a hindrance,” said Lt. Tim Tomisek of the Chattanooga Police Department. “This is a form of community policing. We have to make sure that we continue to move forward and continue to meet the needs of the community.”

While the department has trained officers to be members of a crisis intervention team, another level of help is needed in the field, Tomisek said. The department has begun testing what’s known as a joint response team, pairing a certified physician with a trained member of the department’s crisis intervention team.

“The vast majority of our officers are compassionate, but that doesn’t mean they’re qualified to help someone in a mental health crisis,” said Tomisek, crisis intervention team manager and instructor for the Chattanooga Police Department, in a statement. telephone conversation. interview.

The $980,000 grant is for 21 months to help fund eight positions serving seven counties in Middle and East Tennessee, focused on those counties with the highest number of calls involving people struggling with their mental health they represent. a threat to themselves or another person. known as a mental health crisis.

According to Tomisek, the police department averages 30 to 45 mental health crisis calls a week.

Tomisek is a 20-year veteran of the Chattanooga Police Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is working on a master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis on crisis and trauma. He said that he sees this as an opportunity to further build and repair the fractured relationship between police and the community.

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Last month, the Times Free Press featured co-response team member Jenna Parker, who has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Alabama.

While meeting with citizens on the street, Parker reached out to everyone he met with professionalism and tact, asking them questions about how they were doing and providing them with a list of community resources on where they could find food, shelter and medical attention if they needed it. they wanted.

“It’s great because these people are starting to recognize us,” Parker said. “I was leaving the Community Kitchen and this guy was like, ‘Hey!’ and I was like, ‘Oh hi!’ and he would tell me what was going on with him and some things that he was struggling with.”

Parker said that while some people may not be ready to seek help, having them talk to her or another team member is the first step.

“He may not be ready for treatment, but he’s ready to talk to me, and that’s part of the first step in building that relationship and showing these people that there are people who care and want to help, when [they’re] ready,” Parker said.

Parker and his temporary partner, Officer Brandon Watson, checked on several people they had seen earlier, some of whom were at a homeless encampment in downtown Strayer Street. Watson went in first, making sure people felt comfortable with Parker’s presence and that she would be safe while she talked to them.

“We’ve tried to give them as much control and autonomy [to] talk to us,” Watson said. We’re not trying to, I guess, pressure them, you know? This is so they know we exist and are not afraid to speak up.”

As Parker and Watson toured the city, they stopped at the Walnut Street Bridge to check on someone else who needed their services. As they got out of the patrol car, a needy woman beckoned to them. Following protocol, Watson walked over first to establish safety and comfort, then motioned for Parker to intervene.

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He sat down with the woman who began to talk about her recent struggles. Parker made a few phone calls and promised to help her gain access to a few more places that could provide substance abuse assistance, shelter and food, as the woman was not ready to leave her place on the bridge.

Then a call came in about a person threatening suicide.

Watson approached the man who was sitting on a bench in front of the Marriott hotel in the center of the city, speaking loudly and asked him a few questions, including if he wanted to talk to Parker. Watson patted him down to make sure he had no weapons and then nodded to Parker, who got out of patrol and began assessing him.

Parker, wearing his “mental health is cool” hat, worked calmly, drawing the man’s attention away from Watson and the other two patrol officers standing nearby. Watson called for a medical transport when he noted that the man was having trouble breathing and coughing in addition to his mental anguish.

Once the medical transport arrived, both patrolmen left to continue their shift while Parker and Watson followed the ambulance to Erlanger, where the man was to be admitted.

“We check them in and make sure they’re taken care of,” Watson said at the Erlanger emergency room before Parker began talking to medical staff about the man they’d just brought in.

The Chattanooga Police Department has been independently developing its joint response program since May. In November, Parker began working in the field and has since answered more than 10 calls.

The goal, he said, is simple.

“Just giving people who are in crisis the best possible care they can get, to help them get through the crisis,” Parker said. “Start to break down the stigma of people who have mental health problems, educate the community. Research shows that people who have mental health problems are a greater danger to themselves than to others.”

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Kelsey Taylor, director of training and community response for Volunteer Behavioral Health, said the joint response program helps provide a much-needed personal connection between police officers and the community they serve.

“It’s more than a joint response, you really get involved in people’s lives and follow up with them,” Taylor said in an email. “The combined first responder and law enforcement expertise will allow for increased security and on-scene assessment to help people get the most appropriate level of care while avoiding unnecessary emergency department admissions and offers an alternative to incarceration for crimes related to his mental illness.”

According to Taylor, the volunteer behavioral health crisis hotline receives more than 6,000 calls a year from different Chattanooga agencies, including the police, emergency rooms and fire departments, as well as prisons.

“In 2021, Hamilton County received approximately 6,025 mobile crisis calls,” Taylor said.

“Voluntary [Behavioral Health] We chose to pursue this funding as we collected data and learned more about the joint response model,” Taylor said. “Joint response is gaining national attention and is proving successful in other states and communities by helping officers engage with people. experiencing a mental problem. health crisis. We chose the City of Chattanooga Police in particular based on our longstanding partnership working with them and their willingness to address these needs.”

Other departments that receive grants for co-responders through Volunteer Behavioral Health are the Cleveland Police Department, McMinnville Police Department, Cookeville Police Department, Murfreesboro Police Department, Lebanon Police Department and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. So far, the Chattanooga and Gallatin teams are working in the field.

“We are still in the hiring process and are actively seeking co-responders for the Cleveland, Cookeville and McMinnville positions,” said Taylor.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at [email protected] or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

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