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Gainesville Police employs 2 mental health clinicians. Here's how that program is working
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Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish

When Jay Parrish became Gainesville’s police chief in 2019, the jail and the court system were some of the only ways the department could get a person in crisis some help.

Accountability court programs like Drug Court and DUI Court worked to find rehabilitative solutions for offenders instead of prison time, but the process starts in a jail cell.

“There’s so many things you lose before then,” Parrish said.

More than three years later, Parrish spoke Tuesday, Sept. 13, to the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and its Small Business Success Seminar about the police department’s mental health clinician program.

Gainesville Police currently has two people on its mental health clinician team, and Parrish said they are in the interview process for a third clinician. The chief said they would like four to six members on the team.

The police chief described the cycle surrounding mental illness, which can sometimes start with a lack of medication, food or supplies.

That lack of resources will then lead to a person in crisis and sometimes illegal behavior like shoplifting, which is where the police department is dispatched.

An arrest can have a snowball effect, leading to someone losing their job and having even worse financial problems.

“In their fight or flight mind, they’re ready to fight the officer — not over the shoplifting — because if I go to jail, my life is over,” Parrish said.

Parrish said the mission is to create a response system “that ensures symptoms of mental illness and resource deficiencies lead to support and therapeutic intervention instead of incarceration.”

The clinicians spend roughly 10% of their time being called out to scenes to help people who may be experiencing a crisis, while the other 90% of their time is coordinating resources for people who have already been identified.

Parrish shared one story of a 29-year-old who was taken from his mother at 11 because of the mother’s drug problem. After living in foster care, the man spent ages 19 to 29 living on the streets between Atlanta and Gainesville.

At one point, the man was threatening to jump in front of a car to kill himself.

Through police work, the department was able to find the man’s mother, who was sober and ready to support him.

“He got to talk to his mom for the first time since he was 11 years old,” Parrish said.

The department worked to reunite the family while helping to find support resources where they live.

“Connecting families is the biggest thing we can do,” Parrish said.