Annual walk for the homeless (copy)

Brian Jarrell holds a poster bearing the name of Marcus Smith during the annual Homeless Memorial Walk of Remembrance on Dec. 18 in Greensboro.

If you walk the streets of downtown Greensboro on any given day, odds are you’ll encounter someone with a mental health or addiction issue.

It’s as much a fact of life in the center city as parallel parking, one-way streets and First Fridays.

So, the City Council’s recent vote to create mental-health teams is well worth a serious attempt.

Yes, we’re well aware of Councilman Justin Outling’s misgivings, and he makes some good points. There are lingering questions. Details we still don’t know. Maybe the proposal could have benefited from further study.

But we also understand the council’s sense of urgency. The program had been under consideration for more than a year.

Sometimes you can study an issue to death.

And in this case, having the right people in the right place at the right time may very well be a life-or-death proposition. The new program was first considered in the aftermath of the death of a local homeless man, Marcus Smith, who was wandering through downtown traffic in the early hours of Sept. 8, 2018. Smith died after being taken into custody by Greensboro police officers.

The new initiative, called the Behavioral Health Response Program, will mobilize mental health clinicians to help police and other city workers who may encounter someone who is coping with a mental health crisis. The program will begin early this year and will be administered through a $500,000 contract with the The S.E.L. Group. Through 911 dispatchers the initiative will deploy mental health professionals at the same time as police officers. Or officers may request assistance after they’ve arrived on the scene and see a need for it.

The council approved the program 8-1, with Outling casting the lone dissenting vote. Among numerous reservations, Outling questioned whether such an approach would have mattered in the case of Marcus Smith.

No one can know that for certain. But Smith’s death is only the most recent one.

You don’t have to look far to find a list of similar instances in which a person’s mental illness contributed to a tragic encounter with law enforcement in Guilford County. Among them:

2016: Chieu Di Thi Vo, 47, whose family said she suffered from bipolar disorder and who spoke little English, was fatally shot by a Greensboro police officer whom she had approached waving a knife.

2010: Christian Rook, 17, also was armed with a knife and struggling from bipolar disorder when he was fatally shot by a Guilford County deputy.

2008: Dylan Hartsfeld, 25, a military veteran, was fatally shot by a Guilford deputy while wielding a bush axe. Hartsfeld was said by friends and family to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

2003: Ratmir Gasanov, 35, who had threatened to kill himself, was holding a semi-automatic pistol when a Greensboro police officer shot and killed him in his northwest Greensboro apartment.

1994: Darryl Howerton, 20, was shot and killed by Greensboro officers while wielding a knife as a group of bystanders stood nearby.

Then there was Gilbert Barber (2001). And William Roy Lewis (2001). The list goes on.

The point is that the problem isn’t new and it was made worse by a failed attempt by the state to reform its mental health system. The most glaring holes in a tattered safety net remain in local communities. And even though police officers receive Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, to help prepare for such situations, they are not mental health professionals. So, we welcome the help that is on the way.

Several other cities, including Charlotte, run similar programs.

The mental-health team approach may not be perfect. It may need to be refined along the way. But $500,000 seems a more than worthwhile investment if it manages to save even one life.

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