An initiative that is seeking to shift how law enforcement addresses aggressive panhandling in a pedestrian-friendly section of Charlotte, N.C., is helping to move more individuals from encounters with the justice system to treatment opportunities.
In operation since the start of the year in the Uptown area of Charlotte, the effort allows clinical professionals such as Melissa Morgan, clinical supervisor at Anuvia Prevention and Recovery Center, to meet an individual on the street just as he/she is being detained by police. “Usually the client comes to us, but this time we can go to the potential client,” says Morgan, whose agency provides detox, inpatient and outpatient services.
Some individuals still might decide to choose jail over diversion to treatment at that moment, but Morgan believes that once this talk occurs, a seed is planted. “We may not see it bloom today, but the person knows where to get services now,” she says. “They can never forget that.”
In the early months of the initiative, evidence is emerging that this effort and others out of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department are helping to decrease the jail population and to transition the culture of law enforcement away from an arrest-only mindset toward offenses involving the homeless.
Someone who's been there
Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, a specialty health insurer, has been instrumental in the formation and implementation of the initiative targeting panhandling. When member engagement specialist Ron Clark accompanies Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on visits to the streets of Uptown, he invariably runs into people who recognize him from his drug-using days. Clark had two decades of active addiction to cocaine and served time; he has been in recovery for more than seven years.
“Those are my people,” says Clark. “I embrace it.”
Clark explains that the panhandling initiative grew out of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training that takes place in the police department. Every six weeks, 36 officers in the city are temporarily relieved of their regular patrol duties to participate in a weeklong training that focuses on how to handle crises involving individuals with substance use and/or mental health disorders. In essence, officers are now becoming able to apply the lessons in the training to their encounters with aggressive panhandlers.
Individuals on the street now have the opportunity to connect on the same day with treatment and/or housing services, with police often in a position to drive them to where the services are, says Clark. Individuals usually will be given a citation on the day of the encounter with police, but if they can demonstrate at a later court date that they have been able to follow up with services, the violation will be removed from their record.
Keys to success
Morgan says that as an addiction professional she has gotten great satisfaction out of being able to nurture a positive working relationship with law enforcement officers. How can others see the same success? “You're walking into their territory, so let them be in charge,” she advises.
It is important to remember that public safety always remains law enforcement's primary concern. “Tell them what you have to offer that can make them do their job easier,” says Morgan.
Finally, “Never go into it thinking that you know everything,” she says. “The streets are theirs.”