Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, discussions began across the United States on how to ensure tragedies like it never happened again. In the three years since, some cities and towns have implemented reforms to try and limit police misconduct and increase accountability.
In Fayetteville, three community members—Lisette Rodriguez, Shawn McMillan, and Angela Malloy—have teamed up to reform their city’s public safety system, arguing that the current system of policing and methods of crime prevention are not making the community safer or reducing crime as intended.
One of their main efforts has been the push to create an Office of Community Safety in the city, in order to have trained mental health professionals respond to nonviolent mental health crises instead of police officers.
Rodriguez believes that allowing trained mental health professionals—who are likely to be more equipped to handle mental breakdowns and de-escalate the matter—to respond to many of these incidents will be a benefit to law enforcement as well, as they will not have to use police resources to respond to every mental health crisis in the community.
“They aren’t going to have to respond to all of these non-violent, non-criminal calls. Our police department receives 4,000 mental health calls a month. Which is a lot for a city of 200,000.” Rodriguez said.
A 2022 study found that a fifth of all calls to law enforcement across the United States were mental health related.
On July 1, 2022, Jada Johnson, a Fayetteville resident, died as a result of a police encounter when she was having a mental health breakdown. Law enforcement was called to the scene, where Johnson was with her family. When they arrived, Johnson had a handgun and was threatening to harm herself. Officers called for medical assistance from a local hospital, and her family attempted to get her to put the gun down.
The situation turned deadly when officers tried to get the weapon away from Johnson, and one of them shot and killed her.
Rodriguez, Malloy, and McMillan want situations like this to be dealt with by trained mental health professionals.
Rodriguez believes that some of the core factors contributing to high crime rates, not just in Fayetteville, but in other parts of the state and country, are poverty and a lack of support for mental health.
Research shows that severe poverty increases the likelihood someone will face psychological distress, and the poorer someone is, the likelier they are to experience anxiety and other issues related to mental health. CDC data shows that those living below the poverty level are much more likely to experience mental health issues compared to someone living at 200% of the poverty level.
Malloy, McMillan, and Rodriguez also say that the vision they have for Fayetteville already exists in communities across the United States and in North Carolina.
“I love the fact that in North Carolina right now there seems to be a movement towards community centered safety. People are really asking, ‘well why do we have to send the police to interface with people who are going through a mental health crisis?’ McMillan said.
Ultimately he said that the current system is not designed to fix the problems at hand.
“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” McMillan said.
One of the programs the Fayetteville residents hope to emulate in the city is the HEART (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams) program in Durham. The program is designed to allow for mental health professionals to be the initial response to an incident involving a mental health crisis.
In the program’s first year, there were 29,000 calls that the program could have responded to. However, due to limited resources, only 2,000 of them were responded to.
As a result of the demand for this program, the latest Durham budget has allocated funds for 20 new positions for the program. HEARTS staff say this hiring spree will allow them to respond to around 70% of calls.
One misconception that policing reform initiatives have been targeted with is that they seek to remove law enforcement from the equation. Malloy says she understands the role that law enforcement plays in society. Her husband is a former police officer.
“We had many conversations, especially after the George Floyd murder.”
Malloy’s background is in maternal health and her focus is on Black maternal health. She believes that just as reforms in the healthcare industry led to better outcomes, the same could happen within law enforcement.
“To respond to those who feel that the work we are doing is trying to remove law enforcement out of our communities, that is the farthest thing from the truth. We cannot have a community without law enforcement. But we also need to go back and understand and realize what law enforcement was designed for.” she said.
“I say that as the wife of an ex-canine officer. He will say ‘it was not my job to try to assess if someone is having a mental health episode. That’s not what I was trained for,’” she continued.
While the vision that Rodriguez, McMillan, and Malloy have for Fayetteville is still in the early stages, the city is in the process of hiring a Director of Public Safety for the Office of Community Safety that they advocated for.
“I would like the director to dig head first into putting together a budget, and also fleshing out what kind of staffing needs they will have.” Rodriguez said.
Malloy believes that setting up the mental health component of the office will be critical to its success.
“Outside of the initial training for the director, and also making sure the proper sized staff is provided, I would like to see the direction of creating the mental health aspect.”
McMillan believes a system like this will have a positive impact on Fayetteville, because it’s already a reality in many communities.
“A lot of things we’re afraid to implement here, are tried and true, and tested, and proved in other communities and cities.”