Next month, teams of counselors and emergency medical technicians will join Oklahoma City police in responding to some of the city’s mental health emergencies.

Officers will continue to be on scene to respond to criminal activity and safety concerns. But in cases of non-violent mental health emergencies, they will call on a mobile crisis team for support.

Clinicians from NorthCare, one of the state’s largest mental health treatment providers, will provide counseling on scene, determine the best way to help and connect the person to care, which could include water, food, shelter, medication, regular counseling, support groups or hospitalization. EMTs will provide basic medical care.

The new program, called Champions, aims to provide social services during a crisis rather than after-the-fact.

But even as NorthCare hires counselors to staff the new mobile units, stakeholders remain divided about the best way to help people in crisis and keep them alive.

As police and NorthCare staff worked on a solution behind the scenes, a more transparent discussion among community members charged with improving the city's mental health response was also underway.

Some say the resulting friction is symptomatic of a divide between Oklahoma City residents and the agencies created to serve them.

Josh Higginbotham, a member of the Oklahoma City chapter of Black Lives Matter, served on the task force. Higginbotham presented details about programs in Eugene, Oregon, and Denver that could serve as foundations for a new effort in Oklahoma City. In both programs, counselors and community members respond to calls without police.

“A couple of months ago everyone seemed to be on the same page in favor of a community response and I felt at least somewhat optimistic,” Higginbotham said. “Now, I'm wondering what the hell is going on.”

Evidence of Fatal Systemic Flaws

Police are the first, and sometimes only, line of defense for Oklahomans facing a mental health crisis. The result can be — and sometimes has been — deadly.

The Oklahoma City police department does not track how many mental health calls resulted in use of force or death, but two recent shootings point to fatal systemic flaws.

Oklahoma City Police who are trained in crisis intervention wear a CIT patch on their uniforms. Master Sgt. Corey Nooner (pictured) said people often recognize the patch and discuss mental health concerns with him when responds to a call. (Whitney Bryen/Epic Text Books)

One year ago, 60-year-old Bennie Edwards was shot and killed by Oklahoma City police after officers responded to a disturbance outside Extra Cash Gold and Loan, a pawn shop at the corner of North Pennsylvania Avenue and Hefner Road. Edwards had a history of mental illness and was known by community members for selling flowers on the street.

On Wednesday, Edwards’ family filed a civil lawsuit against Oklahoma City and two officers who responded to the call on Dec. 11, 2020, including Sgt. Clifford Holman who has also been charged with manslaughter for excessive use of force in Edwards’ death.

In May, 34-year-old father Daniel Hobbs was fatally shot in his grandfather’s front yard during an altercation with an Oklahoma City police officer who was trained in crisis intervention. The officer answered a call from a neighbor who told dispatchers Hobbs might be high because “he’s been staring at the clouds forever.” Moments before he was killed, Hobbs told the officer he had a mental illness.

Oklahoma City police answered nearly 20,000 mental health calls last year. Most officers have little training in mental health response.

In Oklahoma City, 124 out of more than 1,100 officers are trained in crisis intervention. Another 47 attended the 40-hour training last week and are awaiting their certification.

Officer Daniel Lopez, who fatally shot Hobbs, had been trained. Sgt. Holman, who killed Edwards, had not.

Some calls lead to the person in crisis being arrested or transported to a hospital or mental health treatment center for evaluation. In most cases, officers leave the person alone to cope.

A consulting firm hired by the city to review community policing recently reported that “One community member told us that ‘the No. 1 issue facing OKC today is a need for alternative response to mental health crisis’ and at the same time that ‘we need a police force that has the capability that they answer a crisis call and everyone goes home safe.’”

New Plan’s Goal: Phasing Out Police From Mental Health Calls

The new Champions plan is fueling ongoing debate over whether law enforcement should answer mental health calls at all, even if they’re doing so with counselors in so-called co-responder programs.

Critics say the only way to ensure a safe response for the person in crisis is to exclude police from all nonviolent 911 calls.

Delusions, hallucinations, depression, confusion and paranoia can be exasperated by the presence of uniformed officers. Guns and tasers, noisy radios, flashing lights and sirens can be triggers for people suffering from mental illness. And police training often conflicts with mental health best practices, which can lead to violent encounters.

“Police trained to assess threats, we’re trained to assess mental illness and those often in direct opposition with each other,” said Heather Helberg, a licensed counselor and chief operating officer at Hope Community Services in Oklahoma City.

Police also add to the stigma that people with mental illness are dangerous criminals.

Helberg said people suffering from symptoms of a mental illness can become violent. But transporting them to the hospital handcuffed and in the back of a police cruiser perpetuates a negative stereotype.

When they’re working with the mobile teams, officers will wear polo shirts with a department logo stitched on the front instead of traditional uniforms.

Connie Schlittler, who helped develop the Champions program at NorthCare and is overseeing its implementation, said the goal is to phase police out of some calls, eventually sending only teams of clinicians and medical responders. For now, police will continue to respond to all mental health calls.

Deciding which calls require the new response will be among the biggest challenges, said Lt. Jason Knight, who supervises the department’s crisis-trained officers and is helping develop the new program.

It is not always clear to dispatchers or officers whether mental illness is a factor in an emergency and whether a crisis team is needed, Knight said, or whether a situation is safe for counselors.

Tulsa launched a co-responder program called Crisis Recovery Team in 2017. A Tulsa police officer, fire department medic and mental health counselor respond together to calls directed to them by dispatchers.

Tulsa Police Cpl. Amber McCarty, who supervises Crisis Recovery Team officers, said one drawback is most resources are being directed toward a narrow group. Those “super utilizers” are the same ones that required significant resources from police or fire departments that were answering the calls before the team was formed, she said.

NorthCare secured a $5 million federal grant to launch and operate four mobile crisis teams in Oklahoma County and one in Logan County. There is no funding for the program beyond 2023, but Schlittler said the program will seek additional grants.

Champions is an extension of a partnership between the police department, the state Department of Human Services and NorthCare that began in July of 2020, at the same time the city launched two community groups aimed at improving care for Oklahomans in crisis. Since then, police in northeast Oklahoma City share information about residents they encounter who need help with housing, counseling, substance use, food or employment, with DHS or NorthCare, which contact the families directly to offer support.

Residents’ use of 911 for a variety of needs piling adds to the responsibilities for officers whose primary focus has traditionally focused on crime and public safety. Knight said the co-responder model allows social workers to provide support where officers can’t and allows police to protect counselors, medics and the public from violence that can arise during emergencies.

“Everyone I’ve talked to says they like to have the police there as a safety net,” said Helberg, who was a counselor and ran admissions for substance abuse rehabilitation centers before joining Hope in 2017. “And I understand that. Being dispatched out to homes and to the streets is a very different scenario than what a lot of us are used to.”

Calls that previously required officers to respond in pairs will need only one officer as part of the mobile response team freeing up police for other calls.

Assistant City Manager Kenton Tsoodle, who oversees Oklahoma City’s police and fire departments, said the program is just one part of the solution.

He said the city should take advantage of federal funding and the existing relationship between police and NorthCare.

‘We Asked For An Alternative Response’

While police and NorthCare were planning to launch mobile crisis teams, 50 activists, religious leaders, counselors, lawmakers, police and city officials charged with reinventing the response to crises were presenting research and discussing their findings in public meetings.

They are the members of two community groups formed after activists took to the streets in Oklahoma City following the killing of George Floyd, who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. At the movement’s core was a distrust of law enforcement fueled by the killings and mistreatment of people of color and other marginalized groups by police.

“We just want everyone to be able to go home without being arrested, without being shot,” said Grace Franklin, a 47-year-old Oklahoma City resident, poet, writer and executive director of OKC Artists for Justice.

Franklin, who works at an insurance company, served on both community groups for nearly 18 months. The task force members included Police Chief Wade Gourley and Deputy Chief Ron Bacy. Franklin said the groups were formed to promote community inclusion around the response to mental health.

Launching a program that was designed without public input undermines those efforts, she said.

The city allocated $300,000 from its general fund to launch the new response. The Oklahoma City Community Policing Working Group and Mayor David Holt’s Law Enforcement Policy Task Force were formed and a consulting firm was hired to make recommendations based on the groups’ work.

In the summer of 2020, City Councilman James Cooper urged police leadership and the city manager’s office to find a better way to support people experiencing mental health emergencies. He led the council’s push for change that resulted in the funding and community groups. Now, he serves on the task force.

Cooper said the new Champions program, which he first learned about the week of Thanksgiving, is at odds with what research and public discussion determined is best for the community.

“We asked for an alternative response,” Cooper said of the council’s directive. “I teach English, so writing and language is very important to me. And the language is very specific. We do not want these people processed through the criminal justice system.”

Neither Lieutenant Knight nor NorthCare’s Schlittler served on the community groups. Schlittler said they have not been invited to participate or present to the groups.

“Although it is a federal grant, we are very interested in being as transparent as possible and get input from whoever in the community wants to provide input,” Schlittler said.

What’s Next

Police and NorthCare are finalizing the details of the Champions program, while the city’s $300,000 the city set aside for an alternative response remains unspent.

A report released in November provides recommendations for improving trust between police and residents, and the creation of a program that sends counselors and other civilians to provide mental health support in nonviolent cases instead of police.

Five pages of the report lay out the options. A co-responder program sends officers and counselors to the scene of mental health calls. Community response programs remove police from the response, dispatching only counselors and medical professionals to nonviolent calls. And some cities like Tulsa and Denver have both programs, each responding to different types of emergencies. 

Among members of the community groups, the community response model came out on top.

After the report’s release, the groups have one more chance to meet and provide feedback. Then, according to Tsoodle, final recommendations will be provided to the city manager’s office. The city manager will present proposals for implementation to the city council for final approval.

Tsoodle said there is no timeline for when a proposal would be brought to city council. And that the funding does not expire and will roll into the next fiscal year if needed.

“This isn’t it. There’s more to come, but it is the direction all of us want to head,” Tsoodle said. “I think we’d all like to get officers out of this work and back into public safety.”

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Epic Text Books covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.

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