Can Nashville Respond to Mental Health Emergencies Without Police?

Twice now in less than two months, calls to the Metro Nashville Police Department about a person experiencing a mental health crisis have led to officers shooting the person in crisis. 

On March 12, 33-year-old Melissa Wooden called 911 and made comments to dispatchers about harming herself — specifically, she said she hoped police would come and shoot her to death. Three Madison precinct officers responded to the 2800 block of Greer Road in the Goodlettsville area, where they found Wooden, a white woman, standing near the road with a pickax and a baseball bat. Footage from a body camera worn by Officer Ben Williams shows him arriving on the scene as another officer is shouting at Wooden to “Step away from my car!” Williams begins engaging with her more calmly, and as she makes repeated comments urging the officers to kill her, Williams tells her that’s not going to happen. 

Officers negotiated with Wooden for a few minutes before her mother arrived on the scene on a scooter, shouting at her daughter and telling officers that Wooden was “mentally ill.” Shortly after that, Wooden’s mother pulled her scooter closer to her daughter, ignoring Williams’ commands to stay back. Wooden, facing Williams, raised the bat and pickax, prompting him to deploy his taser. Seconds later, as Wooden stepped toward Williams, Officer Brandon Lopez shot her. Wooden was taken to the hospital but survived.  

About seven weeks later, around 2:30 p.m. on May 1, Karen Griffin called 911 to report that her son, 23-year-old Jacob Griffin, had been threatening to kill her and others. Her son was schizophrenic, she told a dispatcher, and living in a wooded area behind a Goodwill in South Nashville. He’d recently been fired from the store, she said, and had previously made comments about going inside and shooting people. 

“He does have a gun,” she said. “He has texted me pictures of a full magazine of bullets this morning. So he is armed, and I personally would consider him dangerous. He has never actually been violent. I really don’t want the police to kill him, but I don’t want him to kill anyone else either.”

Around five hours later, following a long standoff, a SWAT officer shot and killed Griffin during an attempt to arrest him at his campsite. During the hours-long standoff, Mobile Crisis staff from the Mental Health Co-Op arrived and signed emergency committal papers for Griffin, but it was SWAT officers who remained in the woods negotiating with him. Partial body-camera footage released by the MNPD shows officers pleading with Griffin to leave his gun and walk out to speak to a counselor. His responses make tragically clear his mental state at the time. 

“I am a hypnotist!” he yells at the officers at one point. “Get off my property!”

Police claim Griffin fired off a shot from his pistol around 7:20 p.m. — in the body camera footage, a shot can be heard, although it was apparently not fired in the direction of the officers. About 10 minutes later, the team of officers attempted to take Griffin into custody using “distraction devices, direct impact hard foam rounds and a police K-9 team.” He was pinned on the ground by a dog, with officers yelling at him to show his hands, when in the footage a gunshot — allegedly from his pistol — can be heard. Seconds later, SWAT officer Matthew Grindstaff shot Griffin, who was later pronounced dead at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 

As fatal police shootings around the country and in Nashville dominate headlines again, incidents like these — collisions between officers and civilians with mental illness — have also come under scrutiny in recent years. Earlier this year, Metro Police Chief John Drake announced a plan to create Crisis Intervention Teams that would include police officers and mental health professionals responding to calls together. But Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, a coalition of community organizations and activists, is proposing a different model that envisions a strictly medical response to what they say are fundamentally medical crises. 

NOAH’s criminal justice task force began talking about Nashville’s response to mental health calls around a year ago, following a previous wave of incidents around the country. The group had seen locally how calls for help for a loved one could go awry. 

“We’d had members of our own congregations call the police and ask them — when they have, for instance, a member of the family who’s acting violent for mental health reasons — ask for their help in a 911 call,” says Joe Ingle, a minister and longtime advocate on behalf of incarcerated people, death row prisoners and other marginalized communities. “And rather than that person ending up in a hospital, like a psychiatric unit, they end up in jail.”

In some cases, as Nashville has seen recently, they end up in a hospital or the morgue. 

“When you bring law enforcement as a routine response into a mental health call, it has an escalating effect,” Ingle says. 

That reality led NOAH members to look to other cities for ideas about a different way to respond to such crises. They found inspiration in Eugene, Ore., where an organization called CAHOOTS has been in operation since 1989. The program dispatches two-person teams consisting of a medic and a crisis worker to mental-health-related calls. More than 30 years after its founding, CAHOOTS handles upwards of 20 percent of the city’s public safety calls with an annual budget of a little more than $2 million. According to CAHOOTS leaders, in 2019, the organization’s teams responded to 24,000 calls and required police backup just 150 times. 

NOAH’s proposal is called HEALS — Health Engagement and Liaison Services — and would pair EMTs with mental health crisis professionals to respond to behavioral-health-related calls. The group has been pitching the idea to anyone who will listen, from the mayor’s office to the police department to Metro Council members. 

Reads a proposal document outlining the program: “The overarching philosophy of Nashville HEALS is to pair an integrated health care response with behavioral health related calls to 9-1-1 or local law enforcement when no known crime has been committed, the situation has been  assessed by trained dispatchers to be non-violent, and the best outcome can likely be achieved through engagement with health care professionals. HEALS may be dispatched to assist with calls involving mental health issues (e.g., anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, hallucinations, delusions), addiction or substance use, disoriented individuals, urgent social service resource needs (e.g. emergency shelter), and other situations as mutually deemed appropriate.” 

The proposal emphasizes that training dispatchers to effectively screen calls is crucial and acknowledges that some calls will still require police backup.

“If there is ever any question regarding whether a call is safe for a HEALS response, it is essential to err on the side of caution and dispatch law enforcement first or as a joint response,” the proposal reads. 

Advocates contend that many calls that lead to violence when police are involved could be more effectively deescalated by unarmed mental health responders. 

The proposal document from NOAH shows an estimated budget of less than $1 million for HEALS in its first year, and Ingle says the group will be seeking funding wherever possible, from the local, state or federal government. With the Metro budget process getting underway, they’ll be making a strong push for support from the Metro Council. 

For now, Mayor John Cooper’s office and the MNPD say they’re set on pursuing the co-response model, which was included in a set of recommendations from the mayor’s Policing Policy Commission. 

“Metro is committed to launching a dedicated mental health co-response pilot this summer, one that reflects the recommendations of both the Behavioral Health and Wellness Advisory Committee and the Policing Policy Commission,” Cooper spokesperson Andrea Fanta tells the Scene. “We appreciate NOAH’s participation in this process and their passion for this issue and are looking forward to continuing conversations on this topic.”

In a February interview with the Scene, Drake said the presence of police officers would make mental health professionals more comfortable responding to potentially volatile situations. MNPD spokesperson Don Aaron said the department plans to start rolling out those teams this summer.

“We are moving forward with the creation of a Mental Health Crisis Intervention Team in collaboration with the Mental Health Co-Op,” Aaron said in a written statement. “A Mental Health Co-Response Pilot Program (based on a Denver model) is scheduled to begin in the North and Hermitage Precincts on June 28th. The pilot program will team volunteer officers on the day and evening shifts at those two precincts with clinicians from the Mental Health Co-Op. That agency is dedicating 5 full-time and 4 part-time staff members to the pilot program. Training is to begin at the first of June. Inspector David Imhof, who is leading our new Office of Alternative Policing Strategies, is coordinating this effort on behalf of the police department. NOAH had brought up the Oregon program; however, after review, the MNPD believes a co-response program based on the Denver model is best for Nashville.”

Denver does have co-response teams, which can respond to more threatening situations. But the city has also recently embraced a program similar to CAHOOTS and the HEALS teams envisioned by NOAH. Denver’s STAR program started on June 1, 2020, pairing mental health clinicians with paramedics, and has been such a success that the city recently put $1.4 million toward expanding it. In February, USA Today reported that in its first six months, STAR responded to 748 calls and that none required police or led to arrests.  

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