The City of Greensboro is in the process of changing the way it responds to 911 calls involving someone in a mental health crisis, without authorization of the Greensboro City Council.

On Dec. 17, 2019, the City Council passed a resolution authorizing City Manager David Parrish to enter into a contract with the S.E.L. Group to provide mental health counselors for the city on a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week basis through Dec. 31, 2020 for not more than $500,000.

The program actually started in March and, since then, when Guilford Metro 911 receives a call that is perceived to be about someone having a mental health crisis, Greensboro police officers are dispatched as well as counselors from the S.E.L. Group.

According to the report Assistant City Manager Kim Sowell gave to the City Council at the virtual work session on Tuesday, Nov. 17, the program had worked well and 489 people had been served since March by the S.E.L. counselors.

Councilmember Justin Outling said, “The presentation put a wonderful gloss on what the data showed, which wasn’t impressive.”

According to a survey of the police officers, who were on every call, about half of the officers didn’t believe that the S.E.L counselors had done a good job.

Deputy Chief John Thompson said what they heard from officers is that the counselors weren’t doing anything that the police officers couldn’t do. Police officers also had to wait for the counselors to arrive, which averaged over 20 minutes, and then couldn’t leave until the counselors left, which averaged about 30 to 45 minutes.

The result is that the city staff decided to stop using the S.E.L. Group and take the process in house, using counselors hired by the city, who will report to the office of Equity and Inclusion, as well as police officers with additional training.

But the authorization from the City Council was not to establish a mental health response team in any fashion the city staff believed would work, but to contract with the S.E.L. Group through Dec. 31, 2020 to provide these services.

Sowell made no pretense of asking for City Council approval or funding for the new unauthorized program, but informed the council that they already had a licensed professional to run the new team and were in the process of hiring six counselors.

No one on the City Council asked how the new mental health department was being funded, or who authorized the city to hire seven new employees for a completely new function. But according to the report given at the work session, on Dec. 1 the city will have a brand new mental health department without any official authorization by the City Council.

The City Council can only take action at a public meeting by a vote of the majority of the council and this has not taken place.