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Norman City Council discusses options to allocate funds set aside for community outreach

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Norman City Council meeting 9/29

Norman City Council study session on Sept. 29

The Norman City Council discussed recommendations on how to put funds set aside for community outreach and programs toward providing optimal police and social services to Norman citizens in a Tuesday evening study session. 

On June 16, Norman City Council cut $865,000 from the proposed increase in the NPD’s budget for fiscal year 2021, reallocating $235,000 toward the internal audit function and leaving $630,000 to be allocated to community services. 

Recommendations on where to allocate the remaining $630,000 were compiled by a task force of 50 Norman residents — including church representatives, law enforcement officers, members of nonprofits and more — created by Mayor Breea Clark. Clark said she formed the team because she values community feedback and the ways it can provide perspective to city government officials in the ongoing conversation on police funding.

Clark sought the assistance of managing partners and a local government consulting firm to conduct five sessions and create a report over the task force’s concerns. The group organized a list of 10 key recommendations. 

Teresa Capps, the division director for the Central Oklahoma Community Mental Health Center, spoke about expanding the hours of current mobile crisis service units. 

Currently, the center provides a children’s and adult mobile response team — the children’s serving ages zero to 24 and the adult’s serving anyone older than 24. Capps said the response hotline gathers information from callers and determines whether they want an immediate or deferred response. 

“We have everything from minor behavioral disruptions all the way to really serious overdoses where we have to call for assistance from law enforcement,” Capps said. “They work closely with law enforcement — accepting phone calls from the community and consumers.” 

According to Capps, response teams in other states have moved to strictly virtual responses, meaning law enforcement officers can automatically receive assistance in a crisis instead of having to first go through an operator. Capps said she wants to get closer to this model in Norman by providing devices to residents who could benefit from access to more efficient communication methods. 

Currently, the children’s response team works 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, while the adult response team works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Capps said an extension of time and resources will require more staffing as the children’s response team alone is responding to about 700 children per year. 

Both response teams also partner with a Crisis Intervention Team — a program that seeks to connect law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency services, individuals suffering from mental illnesses and their families. The team provides training to educate people on how to efficiently communicate in crisis and ensure officer and community safety. 

“Teresa Capps and I have worked for many years together on a lot of issues, and what she’s talking about as far as mobile crisis is a game changer for us,” Norman Police Department Lieutenant Cary Bryant said. “That gives us even more direct access to mental health providers to help those that we’re dealing with in the community and bring those services straight to them.” 

Bryant, the department’s Crisis Intervention Team coordinator, said Norman currently works with 55 crisis intervention team officers and eight dispatchers. He said their partnership is based on the Memphis Police Department model — providing officers with additional training in mental health, substance abuse and co-occurring children’s disorders. 

This partnership should be considered in the discussion surrounding the reallocation of funds, Bryant said, as task force members voiced their desire to augment police services with a range of social service providers. The Norman Police Department is working to develop a behavioral health response and treatment team to address these concerns, Bryant said. 

“It was a concept last year … that was going great until COVID-19 hit, and then everything kind of shut down,” Bryant said. “So there’s still something out there that is very much needed within our community — anytime you can put law enforcement and mental health providers together, we can have some great outcomes.”

The mission behind this team is to address any law enforcement-related issues Norman is facing through close collaboration and efficient communication, Bryant said. He said the team has already enlisted the help of 11 partners — including OU’s School of Social Work, Goddard Health Center and the Cleveland County Detention Center. 

Norman Police Department Chief Kevin Foster also stressed the idea of a “soft uniform” when responding to mental health crises. The uniform consists of everyday apparel — including a labeled police department polo and jeans. 

“(It’s) something that doesn’t look as aggressive as a standard patrol uniform, but yet still shows that we do have some authority,” Foster said. “So it kind of gives that softer look.” 

Foster said the uniform will leave no question that individuals are official police officers and they will still be equipped with a side cuff, radio, a concealed side arm and handcuffs.

Foster said he based his presentation on initiatives like the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Street program in Eugene, Oregon.  

Since 1987, Eugene has capitalized on a partnership between a medic and a crisis worker with several years of experience in mental health. The 24/7 mobile response team costs around $2.1 million a year and is estimated to save $15 million a year through emergency room and jail diversion cost savings, according to White Bird Clinic Coordinator Ben Brubaker in a June 10 NPR interview.

This is a continued conversation that began in a July 9 Norman City Council oversight committee meeting in which councilmembers and other local experts discussed the pros and cons of allocating a portion of the remaining $630,000 toward a similar program. 

“They took what they knew was the problem in their community and said ‘What resources do we have to address this problem?’” Foster said. “They have changed (their model) to fit the needs of their community — so anything we look at, we have to adapt it for our community (in a way) that is going to be the best for our community.” 

The education of Norman citizens on this topic is something Clark stressed to the council throughout the session. She said publicizing existing service options for Norman citizens on the city’s website and expanding multilingual resources is necessary to increase the community’s understanding.  

“This is very important because, again, I don’t think many residents know what is being provided,” Clark said. “We live in an age where you’ve got to provide information on many different formats.” 

Ward 1 Councilmember Kate Bierman said making city committee meetings accessible is a crucial factor in the effort to include Norman citizens in the conversation. She also said how the council frames the issue is important and all community members should be recognized.

"One thing I didn't hear mentioned at all tonight was race — and that was one of the big motivating factors that led us to make the decision we made in June," Bierman said. "I think it's really important … because this is something that’s going to affect every single person in our community — everyone deserves a seat at the table."

Clark said although the fund set to be allocated is small, the proposed recommendations are just the beginning of efforts to improve Norman resident’s quality of life. 

“We need to get clear on what exists in our community and how it all works together — and so that was again one of the reasons why I found this process incredibly helpful,” Clark said. “I hope that councilmembers can see those that were involved as a resource as well and consider this just a starting point for a very important conversation.” 

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