Just after sundown on April 20, 2019, a security guard stationed at a Sheetz off New Bern Avenue called police to report a man trespassing who had already been asked to leave. The dispatcher on the call asked if the man had any weapons. The guard said no.
At the same time, Officer William Brett Edwards just happened to pull into the plaza to refuel his patrol car.
Minutes later, eight bullets would rip through the body of Soheil Antonio Mojarrad, a 30-year-old with a traumatic brain injury and a history of mental illness, killing him. Edwards claimed Mojarrad had threatened him with a knife (a lawsuit from Mojarrad’s family alleges the knife was planted). He was never charged.
Mojarrad’s death catalyzed calls for police accountability and reform, which in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests has morphed into calls to defund the agency and reallocate resources to community organizations that directly support those suffering from mental illness, homelessness, or addiction.
The Raleigh Police Department, of course, wants to go in the exact opposite direction.
Last week, Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown unveiled a new program that ostensibly tries to rethink and reform policing the city’s most vulnerable by throwing some social workers into the mix. Utilizing funds in the department’s existing budget, the new Homelessness and Mental Health Unit would be comprised of three social workers, a detective, three officers, and a supervisor. When a call comes for a person suffering a mental health crisis, a social worker would tag along to aid with outreach and referrals.
The unit would take a “care and safety first, enforcement last approach,” Deck-Brown told the Raleigh City Council last week.
But activists aren’t buying it.
“Law enforcement has become the de facto mental health system, and that is, in itself, the problem,” says Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC. “The way we fix that problem is not to give law enforcement more money to do a job they are ill-equipped to handle.”
According to data provided by RPD, officers responded to more than 6,500 calls dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse, and begging from July 2019 to June 2020. That breaks down to about three calls a day on average for someone suffering a mental health crisis. Another three calls on average each day deal with potential overdoses, and three more involve suicide threats.
There’s also the average of four calls a day where officers simply transfer paperwork from the magistrate to a hospital, a job an unarmed civilian could easily do.
Just four percent of calls dealing with mental health crises were flagged as violent. Yet 100 percent of the time, an armed officer responds.
Other cities have taken a different approach, including CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, which for three decades has been sending a team of unarmed civilian medics and social workers as first responders to incidents involving mental health crises, substance abuse, or homeless individuals. In Denver, the newly created STAR program diverts certain low-level 911 calls to a similar unarmed team of social workers and paramedics.
Council member David Cox wondered if Raleigh could consider such an approach. City Manager Ruffin Hall said it’s not so simple.
“What we’re trying here with the chief’s approach is to leverage the resources we have to maximize the relationship with existing service providers,” Hall said. “If we want to go with an independent or different unit, the first thing is it’s going to cost a lot more money just in terms of a separate agency.”
We’ll never know if having a social worker present could have made a difference in Mojarrad’s situation (the officer’s body-worn camera was shut off, and nearby security cameras failed to capture what led up to the shooting). Kerwin Pittman, a local advocate, doesn’t trust the new unit will actually prioritize care. It will always be “enforcement first,” he says, because the department’s training involves first securing a scene before handing things over to adjacent agencies.
“We know law enforcement presence, with their military-style training and history, only exacerbates the problem these individuals are having once they see law enforcement,” Pittman says. “We’re going to still see the same results when it comes to police brutality regarding those who are having crisis situations.”
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