In September, the Savannah Police Department launched Georgia’s first law-enforcement team created specifically to address incidents involving people experiencing mental-health and addiction issues, and the department’s leadership is already considering this as a successful local initiative toward reforming policing practices. The SPD’s new Behavioral Health Unit − comprised of two non-uniformed unarmed officers and a licensed clinician − responds to calls that do not pose a threat to the general public and involve psychological factors like suicide, opioid abuse, and mental-health disorders. The BHU also assists in calls related to homelessness and disorderly conduct. Modeled after the BHU established within Oregon’s Portland Police Department in 2013, the goal of Savannah’s BHU is to decriminalize substance-abuse and mental-health incidents, and reduce the number of individuals entering the criminal-justice system when alternative measures could address the underlying causes of the issues at hand, according to SPD Chief Roy Minter. “This is a fundamental time to start this unit in Savannah,” Minter stated in September. “We were ahead of the curve on development and research, and can now officially announce this new unit, which we are confident will provide a holistic approach to a problem affecting many in this city.” According to a spokesperson for the SPD, in June of 2018 the department applied for a federal grant aiming to assist in breaking the cycle experienced by repeat offenders, and to lower the number of police contacts and arrests of people struggling with opioid abuse and mental-health issues. The grant application outlined the need for a behavioral health unit. The federal grant was approved in 2019, and SPD leadership began working to initiate the BHU program immediately afterwards, but funding delays and the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the initiative’s launch. However, since September the BHU has been busy − according to Unit Commander Robert Gavin, between October and the mid-December the BHU received well over 500 mental-health-related calls. About 190 of those calls led to interactions, with over 70 of those interactions leading to follow-up visits in which an officer or clinician checked in with the individuals and their families to identify additional potential needs.
“The need is out there as you can see, and the hope is that we can expand the unit past the two officers that are in it and put more mental-health services out on the street,” said Gavin.
Furthermore, the BHU personally transported 29 people for treatment or consultation at a number of Chatham County service centers like the Behavioral Health Crisis Center, Memorial Medical Center, and the Coastal Harbor Treatment Center. “The need is out there as you can see, and the hope is that we can expand the unit past the two officers that are in it and put more mental-health services out on the street,” said Gavin. Officer Julie Cavanaugh, a BHU member with Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team training, says that her unit receives calls daily to handle situations that may not be best addressed by armed police officers who may be unprepared to tackle mental-health and addiction issues. “Patrol will respond to all calls, and if it’s something that is out of their realm that they’re not able to handle or they’re not sure of resources, they then request us on the scene, and on Tuesday and Thursday the clinician rides with us,” Cavanaugh said. According to Gavin, SPD leadership hopes to expand the unit, and meanwhile all SPD officers are receiving basic Crisis Intervention Team training. “CIT is still a priority. We probably have a higher percentage of trained CIT officers than most police departments,” said Gavin. “Last year Georgia began giving it in the police academy, so now every officer that comes out of the police academy is CIT trained, so over time those numbers will continue to climb in those that are CIT trained.” Gavin also notes that the work of the BHU benefits families of afflicted individuals who may not know how best to seek help from public-service providers in Savannah and Chatham County, such as the Front Porch center that focuses on providing referrals for locals in need. “We realize that issues like substance abuse or mental illness also affect the family, so the unit will also keep the family’s well-being in mind, connecting the family with resources, such as the Front Porch, to get the whole family help to rebuild,” Gavin stated. Minter hopes that the BHU’s success in Savannah can be replicated by other law-enforcement agencies statewide. “We hope to lead the way on this in Georgia,” Minter said.