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Chapel Hill Crisis Unit to celebrate 50 years of co-responding with police


The Chapel Hill Police Departments sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

The Chapel Hill Police Department Crisis Unit, founded in 1973, is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Nov. 16.

The unit's celebration will be open to the public at the Chapel Hill Public Library from 3 to 5 p.m. It will feature a program including guest speakers who have shaped the crisis unit during the past 50 years.

The crisis unit was involved in 2,169 events from January to June 2023 including field responses, phone consultations, outreach and walk-ins. About 45 percent of these responses were related to the health and well-being of community members, and 36 percent of events were also responses to traumatic events or helping victims of crimes.

Sarah Belcher, the supervisor of the crisis unit, said the unit blends human, mental health and law enforcement services.

Belcher said the unit started with the UNC School of Social Work and was adopted in 1973 as a full-time unit with the Town — one of the first of its kind in the country. She said the unit started with two positions and has now grown to include nine. 

She also said the crisis unit team includes a peer support specialist who has applicable lived experience. Belcher said the profession of peer support is a necessity and invaluable. 

“It's about providing the right response by the right person at the right time,” Belcher said. “That's really what this partnership is about."

Alex Carrasquillo, the community safety public information officer for the Town of Chapel Hill, said the crisis unit contributes to the priorities of the Town by making sure everyone is treated equally.

“Anybody who's going through a traumatic response is given the same opportunity to work with a social worker if they want to, to learn more about resources,” he said. “That's kind of at the core of all the conversations that we have about outreach and making sure that people know about this.”

Caitlin Fenhagen, the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department director, said the crisis unit is a valuable partner to the department and the courts in general.

“They are reimagining the way we look at policing, especially policing for people with behavioral health issues, and we should be proud as a community in Chapel Hill that we have a program that others around the country and the state are looking to implement themselves,” Fenhagen said. 

She also said the crisis unit and the Orange County Criminal Resource Department are in contact almost daily to better serve the community.

"It's just a great way to brainstorm ideas to make sure efforts aren't being duplicated," Fenhagen said. "And to make sure they're finding out everything there may be to know about the individual in terms of being able to support them with their behavioral health or housing needs."

They often have joint meetings, and Orange County's Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection Program has standing meetings with the crisis unit to determine how to best serve people experiencing homelessness.

@DTHCityState |

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