By Michelle Cassell
Chapel Hill has a dedicated group of individuals that make up a 24-hour emergency response team helping local citizens and police officers in times of crisis. The Crisis Unit was established in 1973 and was recognized as a model unit and a pioneer in the foundation of national Co-Responder Crisis Units. This unique status enjoyed by the Chapel Hill Police Department’s Crisis Unit was acknowledged during the International Co-Responder Alliance (ICRA) National Conference (CoRCon) held at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill last month.
The theme for this year’s conference was, “Make it Matter.” ICRA’s Board Chair Jessica Murphy stated in a press release, “The reality of running a co-responder program is that all of ‘it’ matters — the team, the response, funding, data, assessment, and safety.”
CoRCon is a gathering of first responder agencies, mental health providers, and other service providers working in concert to effectively respond to behavioral health crises and situations involving behavioral health needs. More than a dozen state law enforcement agencies were represented by more than 300 representatives to this year’s event.
Chapel Hill Police Department Chief of Police Chris Blue recently told The Local Reporter, “Our Crisis Unit, thought to be the first of its kind in the country, has been a leader in co-response since 1973.”
“In partnership with officers, crisis unit counselors deliver a daily example of CHPD’s holistic approach to community safety,” Chief Blue continued.
“Our team’s ability to recognize the important differences between incidents involving persons experiencing mental health crises and those with genuine law enforcement needs greatly increases our community’s service, trust, and safety level,” he added. “This is a critical conversation that is finally occurring in many communities. We are proud to have led the way.”
In addition to being the forerunner of all crisis units statewide, Chapel Hill Police Department [CHPD] has recently added a peer support specialist to work with the Crisis Unit. Peer Support Specialists are trained and certified to engage peers (or people who have experienced similar life circumstances) in a collaborative, caring support relationship. Peer support specialists help guide an individual to obtain services through community partners.
Laverne Burton stepped into this new position following ten years as a peer support specialist and 22 years as a certified nursing assistant. Burton, who obtained her associate’s degree in Applied Social Science, was hired by the CHPD to work with the Crisis Unit last month. Burton said her focus has been mainly on the Franklin Street area, where many unsheltered residents can be found. Burton said she responds to assignments delegated by the Crisis Unit stemming from police calls.
Burton’s addition to the team represents yet another first for CHPD’s Crisis Unit — marking the first time a peer support specialist has joined a police department’s crisis unit.
“We are unique to having a crisis unit period, and having this enhanced capability within our crisis unit has been unheard of until now,” Chief Blue said.
Who are they?
The Crisis Unit Team is headquartered inside the Chapel Hill Police Department at 828 MLK Boulevard. The team is a 24-hour emergency co-response unit providing additional support for officers and persons in crises.
Types of situations in which the Crisis Unit Team responds include:
• Intimate partner or sexual violence
• Victims of crimes (assault, burglary/home invasion, armed robbery, child abuse/assault
• Persons experiencing psychiatric emergencies or persistent mental health concerns
• Situations requiring safety planning and lethality assessments (suicidal or homicidal suspects)
• Runaway juveniles and missing persons
• Hostages or barricaded persons
• Traumas including fires, natural disasters, and accidents involving serious injury and death
• Incidents involving multiple victims in need of debriefing, including first responders
• Stalking or harassment
• Death notifications
• Outreach to vulnerable persons (unsheltered )
Jordan Hyler is a 7-month veteran of CHPD’s Crisis, and Kirby Jones, has 15 months with the unit. Hyler and Jones are both licensed counselors. Hyler and Jones said they work with three other clinicians, a peer support specialist, and a supervisor, and the team rotates in shifts — typically with two mornings and two evening staff with at least an hour overlap when all are present.
The job of a crisis counselor
During a recent conversation with the The Local Reporter, Hyler explained how a crisis counselor gets involved at the incident level.
“We have several avenues in which contact with us is initiated,” Hyler said. “We receive calls directly from officers to come to the response scene, or they will come to meet with us here in our unit.
Hyler explained that they also get direct calls from the community.
“It is not always the person experiencing the crisis that calls,” she said. “It could be a witness, another community member calling on behalf of someone else. We often get calls from family members that have individuals living in Chapel Hill that might be experiencing a crisis.”
CHPD’s Crisis Unit often works in tandem with area schools and businesses when an incident is reported. The Crisis Unit partners with local government agencies and nonprofits as well.
“So we provide in-person support over the phone,” said Hyler. “Much of our support involves assessment, de-escalation, stabilization, and helping people bridge the gap to help them get connected to long-term providers.”
Hyler stated this could be accomplished by reconnection with providers they may already be working with or a “warm handoff” to new providers depending on the crisis. Warm handoffs, as defined by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), are transfers of care between members of a healthcare team that occur in front of the patient.
The counselors have unmarked designated vehicles provided by the Town of Chapel Hill that they use when they respond, and the counselors never wear a uniform or carry a weapon.
Counselors can react with or in place of officers depending on the situation.
“We are in the field — in individual homes, schools, sometimes out in the woods meeting folks where they are to provide support,” said Hyler.
Hyler and Jones said despite the nature of their work, they have yet to feel threatened on a call.
“The officers ensure the scene is safe or deemed safe before they call us in,” Jones said. “The officers are very good at interacting and plugging us in at the scene or suggesting a follow-up.”
CHPD K9 Officer Jacob Clark told The Local Reporter the Crisis Unit is a tremendous resource to police officers working in the field.
“My firsthand experience working alongside the Crisis Unit, utilizing the co-responder model, has been very successful,” Clark said. “Together, we help victims and families connect to resources that guide them through difficult times. Sometimes, they need someone to talk to, and the Crisis Unit is there for them.”
Officer Clark recounted a recent incident that underscored the value of crisis counselors working within a police department.
“Someone battling drug and alcohol addiction was hesitant to go to a detox facility,” Clark recalled. “I worked with the Crisis Unit, and together, we earned that person’s trust and ultimately helped them get to the detox facility. The strong rapport we create with our community members is critical to what makes this vital work successful.”
Chief Chris Blue stated the CHPD’s longstanding tradition of utilizing crisis counselors in policing has been a tremendous boon to the department and the community.
“I can tell you that responding and seeing where there are victims who have experienced trauma and having a crisis worker with you to help conduct an investigation and interview is invaluable in providing people with what they need,” Blue said. “It may be the worst day of their life, and thanks to our Crisis Unit, persons in crisis get that kind of comprehensive response every day, all day, 365 days a year for almost 50 years in this community”.
The unsheltered population
The town’s unsheltered population has created a number of issues for law enforcement, which further underscores the value of the Crisis Unit.
“The unsheltered population in Chapel Hill stems from a lack of resources in our community,” Hyler stated. “We have one female and one male shelter for all of Orange County, and they are full. The wait is six months to a year-long, and you have to go through the housing support line to even get on the list.”
Kirby said sometimes the only option is to transport an unsheltered individual to a medical facility.
“Other than that, we have a huge lack of resources in that department,” he stated.
Chief Blue stated that peer support specialists like Burton are essentially trying to place “band-aids on gaping wounds in our system.”
“We don’t have a good place to take people,” Blue said. “The emergency room is not the answer, and the jail is not the answer, so what’s left? This is where [Laverne Burton] comes in, SORAD [Street Outreach, Harm Reduction, and Deflection Program] comes in and our Crisis Team come in.”
Time and workforce constraints on the officers and crisis counselors created the need for such a position, Blue added.
Jones described Burton’s role as going out on the street every day, connecting with the unsheltered and assisting them in finding resources and basic supplies.
“My role is crisis assessing and working towards the community with community integration as the goal,” Burton said. “For example, I will show up for a person wanting to go into a detox facility. If a person is seeking recovery and does not know how to access community outreach partners, I help them.”
Burton said she also does assessments and delivers products for basic hygiene and spends much time helping people that need their medications.
“I help them to get linked with a provider so they can get back on their meds,” she said.
Burton works closely with community partners to establish a connection that would eventually get folks connected to long-term housing.
However, the immediate need for those on the streets is to ensure they have access to medical necessities like prescriptions and doctor appointments. Burton said she helps unsheltered individuals fill out their housing vouchers, transports them to get showers at the Aquatic Center, find meal resources, and provides blankets and clothes.
Hyler said Burton’s impact has been powerful and immediate.
“It has been wonderful to see,” she said.
CHPD Crisis Unit community partners include:
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – *just changed to 9-8-8, available 24/7
• Alliance Orange County – 800-510-9132
• NAMI Orange County helpline 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
• LGBTQ Center of Durham – https://lgbtqcenterofdurham.org/mental-health
• Veterans Crisis Line – 1-800-273-8255
• Duke Hospice Unicorn Bereavement Center – 919-620-3853
• Carolina Outreach Services support for mental illness 919-251-9001
• El Futuro mental health/substance use treatment services for Latinos
• Lutheran Services Carolinas ACT team for severe mental illness 919-968-2522
• UNC Center Excellence in Community Mental Health – 919-445-0350
• Josh’s Hope Foundation – 919-245-0072 for youth 18 – 26 with severe mental health issues. They are offering employment and independent living skills.
• Caramore Community – Support for adults with mental illness
• Healing Transitions – 919-838-9800 substance use treatment
• Orange County Rape Crisis Center Clinical Services – 866-WE-LISTEN or 919-967-7273
• Compass Center Access Mental Health Care Program – 919-929-7122
• Freedom House Recovery Center – walk-in crisis and detox, residential and outpatient mental health
CHPD Public Information Officer Alex Carrasquillo said the provisions provided to the unsheltered come primarily from community donations.
Currently, CHPD is seeking donations of only new items except for clothing to donate; click here for a complete description of things they are looking for. These can also be purchased through Amazon and drop shipped. Click here for more details on how to help CHPD: https://twitter.com/ChapelHillPD/status/1547672015066107907.
Training and qualifications
A crisis counselor is selected based on a case-by-case application process. A degree or graduate degree is helpful. Clinical case management expertise with graduate degrees, others are considered with undergraduate degrees with lived experience are considered.
“We run our selection process for people in the Crisis Unit often with the assistance of community stakeholders and partners,” said Chief Blue.
The Crisis Unit receives special training at the FBI Justice Academy in negotiation to respond to suicidal situations, such as a mass shooting with a barricaded subject. This year, Crisis Team counselors will attend a two-week internship at the FBI Justice Academy — running drills and practicing how to respond in a negotiation.
The Crisis Unit and Peer Support Specialist funding are a significant part of the Chapel Hill Police Department’s budget. This year’s budget did not fund a request for an additional crisis counselor. Fully staffed, the CHPD Crisis Unit has seven employees — five counselors, one supervisor, and one peer support specialist. CHPD is currently interviewing for a new crisis counselor.
“We will be asking again coming into next year’s budget,” said Chief Blue. “We could double the size of the unit and still keep them all busy.”
Chapel Hill Town Council Member Adam Searing said he fully supports CHPD’s Crisis Unit, but the Town has other significant budget priorities, including raising salaries for all Town employees.
“Generally, I am a fan of the police department’s Crisis Unit, so I would be inclined to support an additional position,” Searing stated. “However, I would have to evaluate the request for next year in the context of all our other needs, of course.”
“In the same area, we have the Inter-Faith Council needing more money for their operations, a need to staff up our current police department levels which are low, and a need to raise all our employee salaries — including our police officers — to meet the hugely higher cost of living so we can take care of our employees and retain staff.”