SAVANNAH, GA (September 28, 2020) – A new Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) consisting of specially trained officers and medical staff is now responding to police calls involving individuals in crisis or with substance abuse.
The Savannah Police Department received the federal opioid grant in June 2019 and began researching similar, successful units. The SPD unit is modeled after the BHU at Portland (OR) Police Department, which has been in operation since 2013. This intercept model will be one of the first police-led BHUs in Georgia.
“This is a fundamental time to start this unit in Savannah,” Chief Roy Minter said. “This year we have continued to hear calls for police reform across the country, and one of the things they ask for is an alternative response to calls involving those in crisis. We were ahead of the curve on development and research and can now officially announce this new unit, which we are confident will provide a holistic approach to a problem affecting many in this city. We hope to lead the way on this in Georgia.”
The unit will consist of two non-uniformed SPD officers and a licensed clinician, who will ride in the car with the officers two days a week. The clinician will also be available by phone or tele-medicine if she is not physically present. The unit will respond to calls with factors that include opioid or substance abuse, suicide and mental health disorders, and will assist with calls for homelessness and disorderly conduct. The goal is to decriminalize substance abuse and mental health and reduce the amount of those individuals entering the criminal justice system when other alternatives could address the undying root of the issue.
SPD began certifying all officers in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, and currently has 70 percent of the force with the certification. Four SPD supervisors and 26 officers, including both BHU officers, in addition to officers and supervisors at Savannah-area law enforcement agencies are certified Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team (ECIT) officers, giving them an advanced level of CIT training.
The BHU will respond to calls meeting the criteria and address the immediate response and needs of the call and connect the subject with additional resources in Chatham County. Even after the call is over, the unit will continue to work with the subject and his family to address the issues.
“Their work isn’t over after they clear the scene,” said Maj. Robert Gavin, BHU commander. “Our goal is to reduce the amount of repeated incidents and arrests of people with substance abuse or mental health issues and connect them to community resources. The unit will continue to connect with the subjects to make sure they show up for appointments and help them get assistance with anything that may stand in their way – things like issues with transportation, childcare or their job. We realize that issues like substance abuse or mental illness also affect the family so the unit will also keep the family’s wellbeing in mind, connecting the family with resources, such as the Front Porch, to get the whole family help to rebuild.”
MEET THE BHU UNIT
Major Robert Gavin, Unit Commander
APO Anthony Watkins
APO Watkins has been a member of the Savannah Police Department since 2016. In addition to being ECIT certified, APO Watkins is a member of the Hostage Negotiations Team and Peer Support Team. Prior to his law enforcement career, he served seven years in the Coast Guard and was a nationally certified EMT.
APO Julie Cavanaugh
APO Cavanaugh has been a member of the Savannah Police Department since 2016. She has a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is currently pursing a Master’s degree in human services. In addition to being ECIT certified, APO Cavanaugh is a member of SWAT and the Peer Support Team. Prior to her law enforcement career, she served eight years in the Army.
Rebecca Galbreath, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Ms. Galbreath has a Master’s degree in social work. Her experience includes working with children who have been abused or neglected and providing them advocacy through the court and foster care systems, counseling children with mental health diagnoses and their families as part of an Intensive Family Intervention Team, assisting consumers and their families in the state as a crisis counselor for the Georgia Crisis and Access Line, and providing individual counseling to all ages at Gateway Behavioral Health Outpatient Services.