Huntsville discusses program to help police respond to mental health calls

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The Huntsville City Council passed a resolution showing support of a an important partnership at it’s May 13 meeting. The partnership will be between the Huntsville Police Department, WellStone Behavioral Health, and the City of Huntsville to develop a mental health crisis Co-Responder Program.

This comes less than a week after Huntsville Police Officer William “Ben” Darby was convicted of murdering a man experiencing a mental health crisis.

The partnership is an extension of HPD’s existing mental health crisis response plan, which includes Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) certified officers. The CIT and Co-Response Programs are aimed to improve response to citizens suffering mental health crisis and to provide alternatives that divert them away from jail and towards mental health care they need.

The Co-Response Plan will pair a mental health professionals with CIT-certified police officers when responding to mental health-related calls.

Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray says the department responds to more than 1,000 suicide related calls every year. McMurray says the issue of mental health isn’t something police should be handling alone—instead it requires community collaboration.

“As the chief said this is not suppose to be a police problem this is a medical problem – a mental health problem – that other people have chosen that profession that purpose,” says City Administrator John Hamilton.

HPD currently has 75 CIT-certified officers. “Since 2019 we have been able to certify 75 Huntsville police officers. And that sounds good but there are 500 of us,” says Lt. Jon Ware.

Thursday night, HPD laid out its plans for a co-response program with Wellstone.

“It places trained mental health professionals, masters individuals with HPD officers for response to altered mental state,” says Jeremy Blair, executive director of WellStone Behavioral Health.

The department says the pairing will help with de-escalation and/or helping those in crisis receive assistance rather than going to jail or the hospital.

But many people who spoke before council Thursday night say these programs aren’t enough to make a real change.

“I believe CIT training is a step in the right direction, but in our city’s case it falls woefully short of what is necessary to be effective. And why do I say that? Because just this last week our city’s leadership publicly condoned the murder of a suicidal man Jeffery Parker,” says citizen Awa Melendez.

Huntsville Police Departments mental health co response program is a start— but the city council is also financially supporting a WellStone Crisis Diversion Center set to open in 2022. The center would allow for diversion of certain calls away from law enforcement response and into a crisis call center staffed with personnel trained for intervention.

A temporary 10-bed facility recently opened on WellStone’s Campus to hold a person in crisis for up to 23 hours. The new Crisis Diversion Center, set to open in 2022, is under construction will be able to hold someone in crisis for up to seven days.

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