Greensboro City Council clashes over proposed mental health response program
Tempers flared during the discussion of one agenda item at the Dec. 17 meeting of the Greensboro City Council. At-Large Representative Michelle Kennedy accused District 3’s Justin Outling of bullying city staff and implied that Outling had not done his due diligence. District 1’s Sharon Hightower exchanged sharp words with District 2’s Goldie Wells.
All of these interactions can be viewed by clicking item No. 51 under the video of the meeting at the City of Greensboro website.
After over an hour of often-heated debate, Outling brought up the 2018 death that inspired the resolution the city council was debating. That incident was the fatal hogtying of Marcus Deon Smith by Greensboro Police Department officers that Smith asked to take him to the hospital.
Without actually using Smith’s name, Outling raised the question of whether the city’s proposed mental health crisis response program could have prevented his death. “What would actually be done that would change that outcome?” asked Outling of City Manager David Parrish and Assistant City Managers Trey Davis and Kimberly Sowell.
“The continuation of deescalating the situation,” Davis said, “as well as seeking the right type of care for a person experiencing that issue.”
“So, is it your contention,” Outling replied, “that, on that particular occasion, the police department did not appropriately deescalate the situation or seek the appropriate care? Had they done so, would that have resulted in a different outcome?”
“I don’t think it would be wise to answer that question,” interjected Parrish, but Outling pressed the point, eventually eliciting the following response from Davis:
“No, I’m not making that contention. What I’m saying is that, as we move forward in the future, we want to make sure that our staff, especially the police who encounter these situations, have all the tools that they can, so that situations have the best resolution to them.”
They were discussing agenda item No. 51, “Resolution Authorizing Award of Contract to The S.E.L. Group for Behavioral Health Response Program in the Amount of $500,000.”
The Social and Emotional Learning (S.E.L.) Group is a Greensboro-based organization founded by Dr. Nanette Funderburk and Minister Keith Funderburk, which, according to its website, includes a staff of six mental health professionals. The purpose of the proposed contract, according to the agenda item, is to create “a Behavioral Health Response Program (BHRP)” providing city employees with a “real-time response from a mental health professional during crisis interactions with customers/residents.”
As part of its contract, S.E.L. Group will also “equip city staff with the knowledge of how to handle crisis situations with clients in the absence of a mental health professional” and “de-escalate crisis situations, minimize crisis situations that lead to arrests, and more effectively connect citizens who experience crises to the appropriate services in a timely manner.” According to city documents, the S.E.L. Group’s clinicians will provide real-time response 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through Dec. 31, 2020, with the option of two one-year renewals.
“I have a number of questions,” Outling said. After 20 minutes of “grilling” (a word used by Wells) Parrish, Sowell, and Davis— Outling suggested scheduling a work session rather than voting on the resolution.
This raised the ire of Kennedy, who said: “We can talk about how we need to have a work session, but we’ve had a year, and frankly, if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, then maybe it’s time to show up and do the work.”
Although Hightower has clashed with Outling, this time, she defended him.
“We have not had a whole year, Michelle. We talked about it when Marcus Smith died, and you came up and said we need to get social workers in the police department. The scope has changed since you made that suggestion.”
Wells expressed surprise that Hightower wasn’t supporting the city signing a contract with the S.E.L group, as that organization was 100% compliant with MWBE, the city’s Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprise policy. “That don’t have nothing to do with it!” said Hightower, who sarcastically added that she was glad Wells was finally paying attention to issues of MWBE compliance.
District 5’s Tammi Thurm had two final questions. “The first is whether other staff members, such as from Parks and Rec and the library, will be certified in Crisis Intervention Training along with the police, and will that be part of their professional development?”
Sowell said that some city employees other than the police would receive Crisis Intervention Training, including ones in those departments.
“The other question is more of a clarification,” Thurm said. “You kind of indicated to me that a 911-operator will make, based on certain criteria, a determination whether to call the S.E.L group or the police department and the mayor indicated in her comments that the 911 operator is not going to do that, they’re going to wait for the police to make that call. Can you just clarify that for me?”
Davis answered Thurm’s question. “If 911 receives a call identified as a mental health-related call, then there are state mandates they have to follow. But the program we’re constructing here is a resource for staff.”
Thurm pressed further. “Then, in all instances, if somebody was to call 911, then the 911-operator would dispatch police first? And when the police got there, they would then make the determination of whether they needed additional support?”
“That’s correct,” Davis said. The council then voted 8-1 in favor of accepting the contract, with Outling voting against.
“Ms. Thurm, in reference to what you talked about,” said Mayor Vaughan after the vote, “if we want to expand the program, and I do think that’s worthy, it would be more money, and I do think that’s something we do need to talk to the county about.”
Vaughan and Thurm agreed that such a discussion should be held within 90 days of beginning the program. Parrish said the city would set that as a goal by “sometime in March.”
After the meeting, YES! Weekly reached out to Mary Smith, mother of Marcus Deon Smith. Mary said she was troubled by how, if a member of the public called 911 to report a mental health crisis situation, the police would be dispatched to the scene first, and only then make the decision of whether to call a mental health professional. Addressing the question raised by Outling (and not answered the assistant city manager), Mary said the proposed program would not have saved her son’s life if it existed in 2018.
“The new mental health team isn’t going to stop the police from being the first responders, so even though it sounds good on the surface, it’s not going to stop the police from breaking their own rules and killing people like Marcus.”