© 2024 WUOT

209 Communications Building
1345 Circle Park Drive
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-0322
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Knoxville and Knox County leaders finalize alternative response task force

Image by WOKANDAPIX from Pixabay

The task force comes amid growing demands for mental health resources.

On a summer evening about a year ago, Chenoa Shenandoah called 9-1-1 as her son Maxwell showed signs of suicidal behavior. Shenandoah, a Knox County resident, said Maxwell was handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. As a licensed psychiatric nurse practitioner herself, Shenandoah was able to negotiate with police to instead take her son to a local mental hospital.

“If I cannot get mental health services for my son, how can I expect other people in the community to get the help that they need?” she said.

Situations like hers have led to a rise of alternative response programs, where trained professionals respond to calls alongside police. The idea is to de-escalate mental health emergencies and not address those situations with police force. Most major U-S cities have some kind of alternative response program.

Knoxville and Knox County are experimenting too. Under one model, city and county officers can go through voluntary crisis intervention training through the McNabb Center, a non-profit that provides mental healthcare services.

A second model called co-response, has been used in Knoxville since 2020. Four teams of McNabb clinicians and KPD officers handle calls related to a behavioral crisis. Last year, the team handled over 1 thousand calls that resulted in just four arrests.

“We take the time to really find out what the root of the problem is, and work through all of our available options,” said Knoxville officer Matt Lawson, who serves on one of the teams.

Community organizations, such as Knoxville HEART, have pushed for a third model that doesn't involve police at all.

“It's a decades-old cry from community groups,” said Brittany Bonner, the co-chair of HEART. “We want to lessen the engagement of the police and citizens.”

Bonner said HEART hopes to see Knoxville and Knox County adopt a model that mirrors a 30-year-old program in Eugene, Oregon called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, better known as CAHOOTS. The program pairs unarmed crisis workers with medical personnel to de-escalate situations and provide counseling. Most of the CAHOOTS crisis workers do not have a higher degree in mental healthcare.

Acase study from the Vera Institute of Justice finds that in 2019 Cahoots took an estimated 24 thousand calls. Only 311 needed police backup.

“The reason we stay safe is because we do not have weapons,” said Chelsea Swift, a CAHOOTS crisis worker. “Someone cannot be effectively de-escalated if they think that you have the ability to harm them or have control over their lives.”

Swift said the model is facing challenges, with CAHOOTS workers recently calling for higher wages and better conditions.

Following a public meeting and resolutions passed by the city and county to study alternative response models similar to CAHOOTS, Mayors Indya Kincannon and Glenn Jacobs have finalized a memorandum of understanding with United Way of Greater Knoxville to form the task force.

The task force includes members representing both Kincannon and Jacobs’ offices, Knoxville Police department, Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Knox County Health Department, University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service, Knox County Emergency Communications, McNabb Center, the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee and HEART.

“We want to ensure that the integrity of the model is upheld,” said Bonner, who is one of three HEART members serving on the task force.

The task force will develop a professional business and service delivery plan on an alternative response program to the city and county in one year.

For people like Shenendoah, and her son, Maxwell, alternative response options could change the outcome of situations like his.

“The police get a little agitated, because they have one duty,” he said. “They don’t look at anything else but what they set out to do.”

  His mother is understandably less forgiving.

“These are people who are in a crisis,” she said.”They’re taking a crisis and developing another crisis.”

The task force is set to meet in the coming weeks.

Jacqui was born and raised in Pittsburgh. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 with a bachelor’s in communications. Outside of work, she likes to go to baseball games, walk dogs at her local animal shelter, and hike.