In May 2021, more than 100 local professionals who work in the fields of mental illness, intellectual/developmental disabilities, and substance use disorder provided a letter to Winston-Salem City Council recommending a mental health alternative response program wherein 911 dispatchers are trained to dispatch 1) mental health professionals + medic teams to non-violent/non-criminal calls; 2) law enforcement to criminal/violent calls; and 3) both mental health professionals and law enforcement when both are needed.

The City of Winston-Salem has engaged RTI International to analyze previous 911 call data, research mental health response models, and recommend a model for our community to pilot. As people in our community continue to encounter systemic inequities, we are demanding that this process be implemented in a fair and just way for all.

RTI reported that their analysis would include focus groups. Thus far, it appears that Winston-Salem police officers are the only focus group that has been engaged. In addition to police officers, if our city is to truly embrace change and break down barriers, we must have a diverse focus group with representation from mental health, intellectual/developmental disabilities, substance use disorder, social work, and human service professionals, especially our Black and Brown professionals. Including a diverse set of professionals in the focus group is critical during all phases of RTI’s work. It is too important for us to get it wrong, too important to count people out, too important to dismiss the necessary professionals.

RTI stated explicitly that the 911 data are an underrepresentation of the number of mental health-related calls. We question how data that clearly under-represent the volume of calls with a mental health component can be reliably used to inform decisions regarding Winston-Salem’s mental health response pilot program. And we ask: do these data include other non-violent/non-criminal calls, such as substance use disorder, intellectual/developmental disability-related behavioral crises, well-checks, homelessness, and domestic disputes that would be more appropriately addressed by non-law enforcement professionals?

In a desire to bridge a vital gap in our community, especially in the Black and Brown communities, we are passionate about our commitment to advocate for the 911 Mental Health Alternative Response plan. We believe key individuals are being left out of a vital change in our community. We know important components are missing without our voices of expertise in the mental health, intellectual/developmental disabilities, substance use disorder, social work, and other human services fields. Excuse us; please move down a bit as we pull up chairs to the table.

Hate Out of Winston is seeking members with a focus on mental health and substance use disorder. To join our efforts, please visit http://www.hateoutofws.org/.

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