Community calls for more time and input on KPD, Helen Ross McNabb partnership before City Council vote

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A group of Knoxville community members is expressing concerns with a co-response pilot program between the Knoxville Police Department and the Helen Ross McNabb Center ahead of a City Council vote on Tuesday.

A resolution will go in front of the Knoxville City Council on Tuesday that would create a “pilot program to strengthen law enforcement and behavioral health partnerships and ensure public safety and continuity of care for those in behavioral health crises.”

Up to $95,000 of funding would create a position for one social worker to work alongside a KPD officer. The social worker would specialize in behavioral health issues and provide an on-the-spot assessment.

Some community members are concerned that a co-response program is not the right fit for Knoxville and are asking city council members to include more community voices in the process.

“I think everyone’s going to have their own opinions on what the best response team looks like. And, you know, the three of us have our own opinions on that. And people in the community will have another opinion,” said Alex Rifwald, a Knoxville citizen with a passion for mental health.

“What’s important is that it involves the people that this program will serve. So if it ends up being a response team, I would be OK with that as long as it had, you know, admits by and with the community,” said Rifwald.

Dr. Sarah Hawkwins, a licensed clinical psychologist and Amilia James, a licensed social worker, are working with Rifwald to share their ideas for what other programs may look like in Knoxville.

“It aligns social workers and mental health professionals with police. So this can lead to increased mistrust of social workers and other mental health responders within the community. And those two professions are aligned, corresponds to and can also read traumatized, vulnerable folks in our community who have already had bad experiences with KPD and police in general. And this disproportionately affects people who are black or brown with mental illness, who might be living with disabilities or substances.”

Amilia James, licensed social worker

The group is asking Knoxville City Council members to vote against the KPD/HRMC partnership program and instead, fund an independent research team to explore models, including co-response and alternatives.

Dr. Hawkins said she is concerned there was not community involvement before the city council vote that would allot up to $95,000 to the position.

“That’s a major concern because it’s very possible that the community would not choose a co-response plan,” said Dr. Hawkins.

Alternatives suggested by this group include looking at other cities where crisis intervention programs are working succesfully.

“Another option is there’s a program in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS, and it is a true alternative response team. So they respond to about 20 percent of all nine one one calls in Eugene. And they’ve been doing this for about 30 years very successfully,” said James.

CAHOOTS, James explained, stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, using the program as an example of the types of conversations she hopes city leaders in Knoxville will consider.

Another alternative public health program James considers to be an example is Project STAR in Denver, Colorado.

A KPD spokesperson responded Monday to concerns about the timeline of the partnership, noting that KPD and HRMC have been working together for more than a decade. Also noting, this program would be an extension of that partnership and has been in the works.

City Council approval on Tuesday would not mean that the co-response program will start immediately. It simply launches the pilot program and lays the foundation for continued conversation with the community, City of Knoxville leaders and mental health professionals about how that program could best function in Knoxville to provide the necessary resources for an underserved segment of the population. Much thought has gone into the program already, and there is still work that needs to be done and considerations that need to be made before the co-response team officially begins. 

Scott Erland, Knoxville Police Department Spokesperson

The Knoxville City Council meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. will be held virtually and streamed live on Community Television of Knoxville and online.

According to KPD, there is a pilot program timeline that can be found in the publicly available agenda packet for Tuesday night’s city council meeting, with the information pertaining to the resolution starting on page 957. 

This is the proposed timeline outlined in the resolution: 

Phase I: August – September, 2020

  • Identify CIT officer`
  • Hire Master’s Level Behavioral Health staff
  • Orientation of Master’s Level staff into KPD structure
  • Develop policies and procedures
  • Identify data elements to collect
  • Review of current mental health and addiction trainings

Phase II: October – December, 2020

  • Co-Response Team implementation Implement program evaluation and collection of data elements

Phase III: January – July, 2021

  • Implement new training recommendations
  • Evaluate data for effective outcomes and make adjustments as indicated

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