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13Investigates: No co-responder teams in Central Georgia 6 months after law

Several agencies tell 13WMAZ they're working with their community service board to have an on-call clinician. The law does not require agencies to have teams.

MACON, Ga. — “Do you think Brianna would be alive today if a mental health provider was there?” 13WMAZ asked.

“Yes, yes,” said the parents of Brianna Grier had to say when 13WMAZ’s Ashlyn Webb interviewed them in August.

In July, their daughter's death made national news when body camera video showed deputies responding to Grier's schizophrenic episode.

Credit: 13WMAZ

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation says the 28-year-old suffered fatal head injuries when she fell out of a deputy's cruiser. 

The month she died, Georgia's co-responder law took effect, encouraging law enforcement agencies to create teams of mental health counselors and officers. It's not required for agencies to have teams. 

Six months later, not one Central Georgia county has set up one of these teams.

No Teams in Central Georgia

Most agencies told 13Investigates they're in contact with the state Department of Behavioral Health's Community Service Boards to have a mental health clinician on call. But that clinician would have to cover more than one county. 

Lisa Montford, deputy director of Behavioral Health at the Community Service Board of Middle Georgia. The CSB serves several Central Georgia counties including Bleckley, Wilcox, Pulaski, Telfair, Wheeler, Johnson, Laurens, Dodge, and Treutlen. 

Montford says they're actively working on setting up the best way for police in their area to work with clinicians, but she says it's unlikely it will be the ride-along model that we see in other Georgia counties. She says there's not enough mental health clinicians.

However, Bibb County says they plan to launch a program early next year where a mental health clinician would respond to scenes as needed. Major Brad Wolfe says it won't be a ride along model either. 

Washington County says they've applied for a grant to create a task force and are in the very early stages of establishing a team.  

With that, 13Investigates looked to some agencies beyond Central Georgia that already have established teams to see what's working and what's not. 

Gwinnett County Police Department

Police often have to respond to a person experiencing a psychiatric episode. 

In this body cam video, a man told police the government was out to get him, and he was trying to "escape" off a roof.

“Talk to me. Talk to me,” a Spanish translator said to the man. 

Instead of just police swarming the man, a mental health clinician was by his side.

“You're not going to jail,” said Pej Mahdavi in the video. He's part of Gwinnett County Police Department's Co-Responder Team along with Cpl. Tracey Reed. They spent hours one day in February talking the man down off the roof.

“You call 911 because it's a bad day, so already you're having a bad day, a bad thought, and then the police show up -- police cars, lights. You're thinking 'I'm going to jail. Someone's in trouble,'” Mahdavi told 13Investigates. “I think for us, it's just being a friend. Just having a human connection, trying to relate to the person.”

The outcome that day in February, the man didn't go to jail as he feared.

Instead, the team says they connected the man to mental health services.

It’s the same conclusion of half of the over 2,000 calls the Gwinnett team’s responded to since July 2021. “And of all of those, less than two percent ended with people going to jail,” Mahdavi said. 

Mahdavi and Reed followed the lead from the first team in the state, Athens-Clarke County. 

Athens-Clarke County

Sgt. Robbie Cochran has built his team from the ground up over the last six years while pioneering the idea across the state--getting people the mental health treatment they need while keeping them out of jail.

“It's been six years since I've made an arrest,” Cochran said. 

“And why is that?” Webb asked.

“It's hard to build trust in the community if they're in fear that you're going to arrest them every time you see them. Has a crime been committed? Probably so, maybe, but that's not what I'm here for. If if the officers wanted to arrest you, they would arrest you before they called me,” Cochran said. 

Gwinnett's team grows as Athens' shrinks

It's saving people from jail time, and it's also saving police department's manpower, the agencies say. Those are both reasons why Gwinnett County expanded their program this year from one unit to six to cover every patrol precinct.

“What we were finding was that when officers responded to these calls, they were getting stuck because they weren't familiar with resources,” Reed said. “Now, we have that resource because we're bringing it with us in the car.”

But while Gwinnett's team is growing, Athens' is shrinking. 

“We're actually allotted for seven co-responder teams. We were up to three, and now, we're back down to one. We have a hard time finding the clinical side of our teams,” Cochran said. 

Advantage Behavioral Health, the provider that teams up with Athens-Clarke County Police Department, is facing a mental health clinician shortage like the rest of the state. Georgia’s 23 community service boards are stretched thin, serving several of Georgia's 159 counties. 

Both Athens and Gwinnett say it takes a community effort to make a successful program. 

“The [teams] that are truly successful, are the ones that have everybody on board. They've got their police, they've got their jail, they've got their courts, they've got their local community service providers, everybody's on board with making it better,” Reed said. 

Funding listed as the biggest setback for Central Georgia law enforcement

On top of the shortage of clinicians, the biggest point 13Investigates heard from police chiefs and sheriffs is that the Co-Responder law provides no funding. 

Central Georgia lawmakers say this may be something that's considered next legislative session. 

As for federal funding, President Joe Biden signed a bill in August that Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff introduced. 

It provides funding for law enforcement across the country to better respond to mental health calls. Sen. Ossoff's office could not give a figure of how much money should be available for agencies.

Law enforcement agencies should be able to apply for grants for this funding in the next few months. 

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