Credit: Madgie Robinson/ Fresh Take Georgia
Marietta PD launches mental health unit: Could more pop up statewide?
When Jacob King and Matthew Dames arrived at a psychiatrist’s office in March, they found police officers outside ready to hold down a man while EMTs sedated him.
“They were getting prepared to fight with this guy,” King, a Cobb County police officer, said.
King and Dames quickly recognized the man in crisis from two days before — they had taken him to Kennestone Hospital. He had a history of bipolar disorder and was now in the throes of a manic episode, yelling at his family and threatening them, said Dames, a licensed behavioral health clinician.
Because of their previous encounters, the pair knew the man made threats but complied with orders. So, Dames and King told him to stand up, handcuffed him and walked him to their unmarked, black Ford Explorer. Then they transported him back to the hospital.
This shocked “officers and firefighters watching [with] their jaws hitting the ground,” King said.
King and Dames are part of the PATH team (Partnership for Assistance, Treatment & Health) — a program Cobb County Police Department started in 2019 aimed at reducing the mentally ill population in jails, de-escalating dangerous encounters with police and decreasing additional mental health crises. It’s become a model, with Marietta launching its own program in recent weeks. Lawrenceville and Brookhaven are among the three dozen other Georgia communities which either have a similar program or are in the process of starting one.
King said when he began the Cobb unit he wanted to not only go out and deal with the crisis but go out and work with these people afterward to prevent it from happening again.
King and Dames respond to calls ranging from psychotic episodes to disorderly conduct to suicide attempts.
King does most of the talking while Dames observes the person’s movements and speech. Then he decides whether he or she should be hospitalized or recommended for mental health services.
The technique allows the pair to ease difficult and sometimes dangerous situations while determining if a person needs mental health support.
“I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to say or how I’m going to respond a move or two in advance,” King said. “That frees Matt up to go fully into observation mode.”
In 2021, Cobb implemented a second co-response team to address the increasing need perpetuated by the pandemic. King said having a second unit in place has doubled their impact — still, many calls are handled by regular patrol.
Since they began, the team has been called to 648 incidents which only led to 27 arrests — with the goal to get people mental health support, not jail time. In between crisis calls, they followed up with nearly 2,500 residents they’ve met.
During the pandemic, law enforcement agencies across the nation received an influx of crisis calls related to mental illness, suicide ideation and substance abuse. The Marietta Police Department was among them.
In September 2022, the Marietta City Council voted unanimously to approve the initiative and allocated $355,000 in federal COVID relief funds to a new co-responder program, wellness room and counseling program.
Their new co-response program began on April 3. There, a licensed clinician from Highland Rivers Behavioral Health works alongside one of the department’s officers.
“My goals include removing some of the time constraints and obstacles in place that slow down the process of helping someone in crisis,” said Chief Marty Ferrell of the Marietta Police Department. “I want our community to feel comfortable and confident in calling us no matter what their emergency.”
The Georgia General Assembly passed legislation last year that opened the doors for the creation of co-responder units across the state. Signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, it authorizes law enforcement agencies to apply for a grant that allows local community service boards to bring on a behavioral health clinician to assist police officers in handling mental health crises.
The Georgia Association of Community Service Boards has 36 active and soon-to-be-active co-responder programs that partner with law enforcement.
Mental health advocates said they strongly support efforts by law enforcement agencies statewide to change the way they respond to those in a mental health crisis. The past approach – arresting someone – only exacerbated the issue, they said.
It’s unethical to put somebody in jail who called 911 for help, but oftentimes that is what we do, Kim Jones, executive director of the National Association of Mental Illness, said.
At the Cobb County jail, 65 percent of those currently behind bars have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, according to the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office. Nationwide, 37 percent of people in state and federal prisons and 44 percent in local jails have a mental illness.
“Many times, people who are in a mental health crisis call 911 and we would not send the police or anybody else if they were having diabetes or insulin attack,” Jones said. “We need to treat mental health as a medical condition just like physical health.”
Cobb County Superior Court Judge Ann Harris recognizes the impact co-responder programs can have on the community. She said a co-response team could communicate with the prosecutor and defense attorney through police reports if a person suffers from a mental illness, which can lead to sentencing that includes treatment and inform the local jail.
“Jails are limited in what they can do,” Harris said. “You want to get the individual stabilized and treated so that’s where the co-responder units can be so helpful.”
Officials said a significant number of mental health cases have been linked to substance use disorders. The reality is, they said, many people who struggle with mental health disorders typically use alcohol or drugs to cope.
“When I talk about stabilizing its two components: you want to stabilize and treat their mental illness, but then you’ve also got to get them away from the substance use,” Harris said. “I can’t explain how critical that link is between mental illness and substance use disorder and it typically just creates a vicious downward spiral for these folks.”
The new approach could also reduce officer-involved shootings of people with mental illness.
Since 2015, 21 percent of individuals fatally shot by police had mental health diagnoses, according to a Washington Post database. Of the 317 individuals killed by officers in Georgia, 56 had mental illnesses.
In 2021, Matthew Zadok Williams was fatally shot in his townhome by Dekalb County police officers. The dispute happened after a woman called 911 and reported a man had pulled a knife on her. After police arrived, Williams, 41, appeared to have charged at one of the officers with a knife and then fled to his home, news reports indicate.
The officers repeatedly called for Williams to step outside and put the knife down before one of them shot into his home killing him. In February 2023, Zadok’s family filed a federal lawsuit against Dekalb County that stated Williams was suffering from a mental health crisis during the police encounter.
Last year, 32-year-old Matthew Deese was shot and killed by police after two hours of crisis negotiation. Police responded to a call about a man suspected of a hit-and-run and threatening to commit suicide. Deese pointed his gun at two Houston County Sheriff officers who in turn fired four times killing Deese. Deese’s wife told officers he had a drinking problem and needed help.
King said when responding to a mental health crisis, he and Dames must be very patient and model the behavior they want the person to exhibit.
King recalled responding to an incident last year, when a man had threatened his father and paced around his house with a kitchen knife in hand, according to initial reports. He later told them he had the knife because he was previously making a sandwich.
On the scene, King carried a less lethal shotgun in case the situation escalated. But when King learned the man no longer had the knife in his hand King put the weapon away in response.
It was not primarily conversation that de-escalated the tense situation. King and Dames had met with him multiple times before. The connection they built with the man before the encounter calmed him down and he did not need to be hospitalized.
“Getting to know these individuals and getting them to understand that they need to make better decisions — that’s the critical aspect,” King said.
The team predicts every jurisdiction will have co-responder programs in the next 10 to 15 years. Even with some hesitancy towards the non-traditional form of policing, they said, their unit or other units will be the model for Georgia in the future.
“This isn’t going to fix or cure mental illness and it’s not going to put an end to mental health crises,” King said. “But it’s a much more effective way of doing things.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Fresh Take Georgia.