Mental health-support specialist dispatched on some Sheriff’s Office calls

Buncombe County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Bryan Freeborn and Makayla Lechnowskyj
TRY SOMETHING NEW: Buncombe County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Bryan Freeborn, left, and Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services' licensed mental health counselor Makayla Lechnowskyj, right, are two members of a new co-responder unit dispatched to 911 calls that involve addiction and behavioral health. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

A new type of response unit arrived at the scene of a recent domestic violence call in Buncombe County.

“The foundation of that call was long-term mental health issues,” explains Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Bryan Freeborn. “It’s not confined to one member of the family. Every now and again, it boils over.”

He says he has a trusting relationship with the family from responding to previous calls, and the added presence of Makayla Lechnowskyj, a licensed clinical addiction specialist and licensed mental health counselor, was crucial for helping the individuals calm themselves.

Freeborn and Lechnowskjy are two members of Buncombe’s new co-responder team, which addresses certain 911 calls by sending a trained mental health clinician alongside law enforcement.

“Having a clinician who understands how to talk to folks is really important” on such calls, says Freeborn, a former Asheville City Council member and a BCSO deputy since 2017. “And then having trauma-informed law enforcement officers to also be able to speak that language helps as well.”

When the co-responders receive instructions from 911 dispatch hastening them to a scene, it might be for a noise complaint, a wellness check or any of a number of seemingly vague situations. But the 911 dispatch specifically alerts this team when the subjects are experiencing behavioral health issues or substance misuse.

The co-responders address acute calls, meaning ones that require immediate assistance, says Lechnowskyj, who works on the Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services community paramedics team.

Freeborn says people undergoing a mental health crisis often have immediate needs such as transportation, basic wound care or other medical issues, or food. He asks them, “What do you need to feel safe at this moment?” In the recent domestic violence call, one party was upset that they didn’t have access to their own money; Freeborn gave the person a ride to the bank.

Many of their calls are in the downtown Asheville area. Lechnowskyj says they frequently wait for calls to come in at Haywood Street Congregation, a ministry that primarily works with people who are experiencing homelessness, mental health crisis or addiction, and they get to know people who use the ministry’s services. But the co-responder unit serves all of Buncombe County and emphasizes that these issues affect all income brackets. As she puts it, “Addiction is not picky.”

Successful launch

BCSO and BCEMS quietly launched a pilot for the co-responder program over the summer.

“We have seen firsthand the positive effects that the program has had on our residents and our visitors at the intersection of homelessness, behavioral health and drug addiction,” BCEMS Director Taylor Jones said at a press conference on Oct. 27 announcing the expansion of the program.

At the press conference, Freeborn explained that the co-responder unit would focus on mental health calls, welfare checks and involuntary commitments. He said that during the summer pilot, the team was dispatched to 190 calls and no arrests were made. (Two other BCSO officers work on the team alongside him.)

While seeking to address immediate needs that may have caused a behavioral health crisis, the co-responders ultimately seek to connect individuals to long-term services or care.

Freeborn shared an example of someone who could have ended up in an emergency room bed or a jail cell but instead was connected to government benefits. “We were called out to Swannanoa to assist EMS with transport of a combative subject who had been [trespassing at] all the businesses in Swannanoa,” he explained. “He had been sleeping on the sidewalk. Ambulance and EMS [in Swannanoa] wanted to transport him to the hospital.” But the co-responders knew the man and his history and were able to transport him to the Haywood Street Congregation. Freeborn says the man was eventually linked to long-term housing through Medicaid and his Veterans Affairs benefits.

“That’s … what we’re going to do as a program,” he told the press conference. “Divert people away from the jail, divert people away from the hospital and find long-term solutions to short-term problems.”

Filling a gap

The co-responder program is unique in that it dispatches a mental health clinician to calls, says Claire Hubbard, BCEMS’ community paramedic program manager.

BCSO and the Asheville Police Department typically undergo basic crisis intervention training for behavioral health, as does the Asheville Fire Department’s community responder team. (The Fire Department’s community responders visit businesses around Asheville to address their concerns as part of a “downtown safety initiative” the City of Asheville announced in the spring.) However, mental health clinicians like Lechnowskyj and Mark Siler, another member of the new team, bring years of specialized training and experience.

Some behavioral health support is already provided in Buncombe County by RHA Health Services Mobile Crisis Management, which sends a mental health professional to an individual by request. But the individual must want to receive help from Mobile Crisis, and the response time can be about two hours. The county’s co-responder program is unique in sending a combination of emergency mental health and law enforcement response immediately, explains Lechnowskyj.

Currently, the co-responders operate on weekdays. Lechnowskyj says that in between responding to calls, they get to know members of the community. Success in their work relies “on trust and rapport — the more we know people, the better,” she says.

‘Do it differently’

“As the sheriff [Quentin Miller] always says, ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this,’ and he’s absolutely correct,” says Freeborn. “Homelessness, mental health, substance abuse — we have been trying to arrest our way out of that for the better part of my life, if not longer. And I don’t think we’ve made any progress on that end.”

A person charged by BCSO with second-degree trespassing will spend 24-48 hours in jail before release and then receive a court date “that they’re probably not going to show up to,” Freeborn explains. “And so now they’re involved in a judicial process that’s going to impact them negatively. Whereas if the co-responders show up, instead of getting a second-degree trespass, they can be connected to services.”

Freeborn says working in law enforcement has shown him that people’s behavior can indicate larger problems in their lives. Individuals experiencing acute mental health crises often have trauma in their history like sexualized violence, child abuse, overdoses, homelessness or military combat exposure. He explains how when he worked as a school resource officer, he saw firsthand that a child being disruptive in class may be experiencing hunger at home. While working as a BCSO detective assigned to property crimes, he saw how some people resorted to theft because they were trying to fund a drug addiction.

Freeborn notes that members of the public are aware that mental health and addiction fuel some criminal behavior. (Indeed, some business owners have told Xpress that they decline to press charges after they call law enforcement about an individual who is trespassing or disturbing the peace.) He believes “the community is asking us to do something different” by trying to address root causes.

Nationwide, law enforcement has received criticism nationwide for responses to mental health-related calls where its presence escalates the situation. Freeborn says it doesn’t matter whether he arrives on the scene of a co-responder call in a suit and tie, his law enforcement uniform or casual wear. “What I’ve found is it’s not so much the uniform [that people react to] — it’s how you show up and the energy you bring.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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2 thoughts on “Mental health-support specialist dispatched on some Sheriff’s Office calls

  1. Lora Aspiotis

    My autistic son nearly lost his life because he was having a severe reaction to Wellbutrin but the deputy and 4 firemen bent him over the trunk of a car and he couldn’t breathe. Why weren’t the deputies trained? Hundreds of developmentally disabled individuals are killed by law enforcement because they are not properly trained. Why isn’t a specific person sent out on calls for this segment of the population? Are you just responding to downtown because the wealthy people are complaining?

  2. T100

    I remember seeing Freeborn on the televised City Council meetings. He never struck me as a LEO type.

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