By Rayleigh Rozier
You may not think of Athens-Clarke County police as mental health care providers, but the department receives 6,000 calls each year involving citizens with mental illness.
The ACC Police Department hopes to use a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to create a plan over the next two years to divert those in need to alternative facilities. The department will work with the J.W. Fanning Institute and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government to develop the plan.
Carter Greene, ACCPD assistant chief, said arresting those with a mental health issue is not always the best solution. It’s a time consuming process and the action may not warrant charges, but sometimes officers don’t have much of a choice.
“It’s a resource drain on the police department and we don’t have a lot of options when we deal with people with mental health problems,” Greene explained. “We either arrest them, or sometimes we may be able to send them to the hospital. Those are the two options we have.”
Authorities believe a new plan could result in less crowding in the jails, more efficient use of police and more people returning to and contributing to society.
Greene likes a jail diversion program in Bexar County, Texas, seen as a national model for this type of reform. Greene said the ACC program hopes to create a 14-16 bed facility where officers can drop off people they believe may have a mental health condition. Mental health providers at the facility could then evaluate them for a period of up to three days and, if necessary, direct them to an appropriate mental health care provider without charges being pressed.
The Athens-Clarke County jail, like many across the U.S., struggles to meet the mental health needs of individuals who may have committed a crime. Matthew Greife, an attorney who teaches a criminal justice class at the University of Georgia, said the problem can be traced back to federal budget cuts to mental health programs in the 1980s.
“Police officers are the ones who are now dealing with mental health problems and … jails effectively became the new institution, which is not what they’re designed to do,” Greife said.
A team will begin working on a mental health reform plan in November, once the grant is added into the budget at the next commissioner’s meeting. The ACC Commission still has to vote on accepting the grant, but Mayor Nancy Denson said she sees no reason why it would not be approved.
The Athens-Clarke County Board of Commissioners meeting will be on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.