Chattanooga police’s crisis co-response unit diverts 65 from jail, 92 from ER in first year and a half

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Officer Brandon Watson and clinical social worker Rachel Smith talk after responding to a call in Hixson on July 10.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Officer Brandon Watson and clinical social worker Rachel Smith talk after responding to a call in Hixson on July 10.


On a sweltering June afternoon, residents of an apartment complex off Brainerd Road called police about a man shouting and making noise in a hallway.

The first car dispatched to the call was the Chattanooga Police Department's crisis co-response unit, Officer Brandon Watson and clinical social worker Rachel Smith.

Two other patrol officers followed to provide backup and helped detain the man. As he sat, handcuffed and sweating, in the backseat of a patrol car in the complex's parking lot, Watson started talking to him.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga police launch new mental health co-response unit)

 

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The officer learned the man had been recently evicted from the complex and had gotten out of jail two days earlier. He was there to collect some things he'd left inside but appeared intoxicated and upset.

Eventually, Watson undid the handcuffs and escorted the man back inside. A few minutes later, he walked out with a full box of his clothes and other belongings, much calmer and happy to be walking free.

If another officer had handled the call, the man could have been charged with something like disorderly conduct, or public intoxication, and been sent right back to jail.

But the goal of the crisis co-response unit is to intervene and get residents help when jail and criminal charges may not be the answer.

"Our main goal is to not go to jail, and not to go to the ER," Watson said during a June ride-along.

By the numbers

It's been more than a year and a half since Chattanooga's first crisis co-response unit hit the streets in December 2022.

Earlier this year, after the unit's first social worker left for another job, Watson worked the crisis beat alone for about four months before Smith was hired. A second social worker is set to begin training to join the department this month, co-response manager Belen Garcia-Rivas said in an interview.

(READ MORE: Reports of crime down in Chattanooga and Hamilton County in 2022, according to TBI report)

So far, the unit has responded to 248 calls, though that number is a fraction of the total interactions the co-responders have had.


When responding to someone in crisis, Watson gets out of the car first and assesses the scene for safety. Then, Smith comes out and gets to work doing an on-site assessment of the person — figuring out what they're going through, whether they're on medication or intoxicated at all, and trying to determine what they might need in the moment.

Some days, Smith said, they're running from one call to the next. Others, they're helping people get wheelchairs over a curb or repairing a fence at the city's sanctioned homeless camp at 12th and Peeples streets.

Since the program began, 65 people in Chattanooga have been diverted from jail or prison, according to data from Volunteer Behavioral Health, a mental health care provider that coordinates the co-responders through an agreement with the Chattanooga Police Department.

Most of those people would have been charged with things like disorderly conduct, trespassing, resisting arrest, filing false emergency reports and public intoxication. The unit has made just one arrest, on a person with active warrants, Watson said.

"If we can determine that this person is breaking the law right now but it's due to severe and persistent mental illness or maybe just acute psychosis, we can articulate that and say we're not going to charge this right now," Watson said.

(READ MORE: One more homicide reported in Chattanooga than this time last year, data shows)

Another 96 people helped by the unit also avoided being taken to an emergency room unnecessarily, Kelsey Taylor, who oversees co-responder programs at Volunteer, said by phone.

Jessica Long, behavioral health manager at Erlanger in Chattanooga, said people who do get taken to the emergency room can be seen by a psychiatrist over telehealth, and having an assessment from a social worker helps move them through more efficiently.

"This is not only an Erlanger issue, but no emergency room is set up to be a holding place for someone having a psychiatric emergency," Long said in an interview.

About half of crisis calls in Chattanooga involve substance use, data shows, and roughly half of those involve alcohol.

A third of people the unit has responded to are homeless, according to Volunteer.

Around 46% of the unit's responses resulted in the person in crisis remaining in the community, and roughly 35% ended in a recommendation for inpatient psychiatric treatment, according to data from Volunteer. Seven percent went to the crisis stabilization unit at Volunteer's North Chattanooga facility, which offers short-term mental health treatment.

In 3% of cases, the person was placed on an involuntary emergency mental health hold, data shows. Those are used sparingly, Watson said, since they require the person to be in immediate danger of hurting themselves or others.

(READ MORE: Erlanger board holds last public meeting in Chattanooga before going private)

"There's a stigma or a misconception that law enforcement can just willy-nilly pick you up and take you to Moccasin Bend," Watson said. "Well, that's not true. You can't just do that without due process... We have that if we need it, but we really try to give the individual autonomy and control over their own direction, their own treatment, where we can."

Avoiding jail also allows the unit to connect people directly with in- or outpatient mental health treatment or other services they may need.

"A lot of the time we'll see mental health consumers, they're in and out of the jail system because they're not getting any mental health help," Smith said during the June ride-along.

Growing force

Until now, there has been just one crisis unit patrolling Chattanooga, Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The department says their data shows the highest volume of crisis calls — most of them related to people who are contemplating suicide or experiencing psychosis — come in between noon and 5 p.m. on weekdays.

This month, a second social worker will start training to join the department as a co-responder. Once trained, she will be paired with an officer and the team will help expand the department's crisis response coverage.

Both social worker positions are employees of Volunteer Behavioral Health, paid through a grant that's set to last through at least 2025.

The city hopes eventually to have as many as eight crisis co-responders, or four officer-social worker teams. Future positions may be funded by the city, Garcia-Rivas, the police department's co-response manager, said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Mental Health Court set to receive extra $200,000 in recurring funds)

"One clinician is not enough, even two is going to be pushing it," Taylor, with Volunteer, said. "They're still not going to be covering 24 hours."

It's harder to attract social workers to those jobs, Taylor said, than to higher-paying and often less stressful private sector positions. Many of the applicants tend to be younger, often recently out of school, she said.

"It takes a special kind of person to do this work," Taylor said. "You've got to be passionate about it."

Crisis response

Both Watson and Smith, as well as others who work with the unit, said they can't imagine crisis response being separate from law enforcement.

A sworn officer can use training to assess the safety of a situation before a social worker comes in to perform an evaluation on the person in crisis, they said.

"The cops can get there faster, the cops have guns and body armor," Watson said. "So if things go sideways, they're able to defend themselves and others.

"But then we're tasked with this monumental thing — and unfairly so — this monumental thing. Who are they going to call? Who's going to answer the call? We can't say no. There are people who the only reason why they're still alive is because law enforcement actually answered the phone."

Garcia-Rivas said patrol officers who work a beat also build relationships with people they see all the time, so there's a rapport already in place if a crisis does occur.

(READ MORE: No decision yet on whether to rebuild or relocate Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute)

"Ever since we started defunding mental health back in the '70s, basically society passed the buck to police officers," Rick Dierenfeldt, a criminal justice professor at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, said by phone. "And so now in addition to being a law enforcement official, you're now expected to be a mental health professional."

Police in general are trained to be reactive, not proactive, Dierenfeldt said, and tend to have an insular culture of only consulting with other law enforcement. Programs like this one, he said, may be a good sign that Chattanooga's force is asking for external help with mental health calls and making an effort to get to know the people who most often find themselves in crisis.

Both Taylor, at Volunteer Behavioral Health, and Long, at Erlanger, work closely with Chattanooga's co-responders. Long was trained to teach crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics to hospital workers and has done sessions with emergency room doctors and security guards.

"What surprised me, and continues to surprise me every time we teach this material, is how much people struggle with basic listening skills," Long said.

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.

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