Program to reimagine police beginning soon in Athens

Health professionals will soon be responding to some 911 calls in Athens instead of armed police.

The ACC Commission approved an agreement with Advantage Behavioral Health Systems to fund one “alternative crisis response team” at a cost of $276,800 over the next year, in collaboration with the ACC Police Department. The pilot program will train and equip a three-person team (including a clinician, a medical professional and a peer specialist) to respond directly to 911 calls in place of police.

This unarmed team will provide outreach to community members, supportive counseling, transport and referrals to various social service agencies. They will also follow-up in some cases after people have had police interactions in an attempt to offer needed help that police are not trained to provide.

During its first year, the team will operate on a trial basis from 10 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday. Dr. Shannon Kelly, Chief Clinical Officer of Advantage Behavioral, told the ACC Commission that they wanted the team to be active at the same time as most social service providers.

“The thing that’s going to make this program successful is that they’re able to provide hand-offs and coordination into needed services. Those services mostly operate Monday through Friday,” she said at a commission meeting last month. 

A focus on safety

Kelly emphasized that her focus during the program’s first year will be to ensure the safety of everyone involved, including response team members. She said they’ll start conservatively, only responding to the safest of 911 calls at first while they build confidence and gain experience.

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ACCPD Deputy Chief Harrison Daniel agreed, saying that the alternative response team would not be dispatched in certain cases: for example, if a crime was alleged, if violence seemed likely or if a weapon was spotted on scene. ACCPD’s 911 center would retain control over dispatching the alternative response team but Advantage could always refuse certain calls if the team was unavailable or uncertain about the safety of the situation.

While they will make every effort to keep their team safe, unforeseen events can’t always be prevented. If the alternative response team ever runs into trouble, they would use an emergency radio to signal for police intervention.

Reimagining, not defunding, police

The commission is implementing this new program, which is based on CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, due in part to public pressure following the George Floyd protests last year.

These protests, sparked by Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in 2020, were the largest protest movement in US history. Protesters marched to oppose police violence, but many felt that militarized police were inherently violent and could not be reformed. Calls to “defund the police” were heard nationwide, repeated by millions of people.

Justice for George Floyd
The “March for a World without Cops” protest in Athens on May 31, 2020.

In Athens, many protesters and other community members expressed their support to commissioners for a version of this idea as well. Even so, Commissioners Mariah Parker and Tim Denson found very little enthusiasm among their colleagues for their plan to reduce police funding by 50% over ten years (the “50/10 plan”). Parker attempted to include this plan in the budget last year, but her budget amendment failed in a 6-3 vote.

The George Floyd protests have since waned and Democrats quickly found themselves on the defensive for their alleged sympathies to these types of proposals, which have been very controversial among Republicans and Democrats alike.

The 50/10 plan is not likely to resurface here in Athens as long as the need for police services remains high. Instead, the commission is focusing their efforts on first building an alternative to police rather than on reducing the scope of the existing police department.

“There’s been a major, large-scale outcry, locally and nationally, for a different approach to public safety,” said Commissioner Jesse Houle, also a member of Advantage Behavioral’s Board of Directors. “This [alternative response team] is us taking that step in a way that is really collaborative. It’s very encouraging.”

Next steps

The commission unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding outlining the alternative response team program with Advantage Behavioral at tonight’s meeting. Once the team is trained and ACCPD dispatchers are also brought up-to-date on their new protocols which include this team, the pilot program will begin.

ACCPD and Advantage Behavioral will meet monthly to discuss the success of the program. They will make changes as needed if it meets with unexpected difficulties. Advantage Behavioral will report the program’s statistics across multiple metrics quarterly to ACCPD so it can be continuously evaluated.

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