Police reform advocates across the country have been reflecting on the role of police and an increasingly urgent need to help people suffering with mental illnesses and addiction outside of the law.
In 2016, Dallas police chief David Brown stated during a media interview, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.” Brown believed officers in Dallas and nationwide were under too much stress to handle societal issues such as mental health and substance abuse.
Much discussion has occurred recently regarding “reimagining policing.” Before this term became popular, the Savannah Police Department had already began establishing a goal of “reimagining public safety.” This goal involves moving away from enforcement where it can be avoided and moving toward the provision of providing vital services to communities that need them in an effective, equitable and sustainable way.
Last week, the Savannah Police launched its Behavioral Health Unit. This unit consists of two non-uniformed SPD officers and a licensed clinician, who respond to calls with factors that include opioid or substance abuse, suicide and mental health disorders, and assists with calls for homelessness and disorderly conduct. The goal of this program is to decriminalize substance abuse and mental health-related issues and reduce the amount of those and other individuals entering the criminal justice system when other alternatives could address the underlying root of the issue.
In 2019 our department responded to more than 3,700 mental health calls. In the last three months, officers responded to more than 500 of these calls. Most of these calls were not related to criminal acts and only involved people in crisis. Many of these people only needed to be evaluated by a licensed clinician, referred to the appropriate resources and provided with a follow-up plan to reduce recidivism. Our hope is that this program will connect individuals with the assistance they need, while reducing our response to these types of calls for service.
The Savannah Police Department has also implemented a Pre-Arrest Diversion Program. This program is used for low-level misdemeanor offenses that result from an error in judgment, uncontrolled emotions or someone making a mistake. The goal of this program is also to reduce recidivism and improve law enforcement relations with the community due to the officers having an alternative to arrest and enhance community partnerships.
The Savannah Police Department will continue to invest in services that directly address underlying issues such as mental health care and support, substance abuse and poverty. Making this shift, along with establishing effective community resources, is essential to limiting the police response and enforcement actions that continue to fill jails and not address the long-term impact of these issues.
As chief of SPD, I will continue to focus on the issues that are not only prevalent in our city but in cities like ours across the country. We want to continue to be looking toward the future of policing, how we can strengthen relationships with the public and how we can better help citizens rebuild their lives, hopefully diverting them from crime.
This is just one step. In this case, we were ahead of the curve in development. We want to maintain that and value input from the public that can continue us moving with that momentum.
Chief Roy Minter has led the Savannah Police Department since August 2018.