Dre Johnson and Renee Brean knew only that they were headed to talk to a family about a missing teen.
They were meeting Rochester Police before going to the house to ask about the child because a sergeant had asked an officer to call the Person in Crisis team.
“Every call is different,” said Brean, as Johnson drove from their office in the city’s Department of Recreation and Human Service on St. Paul Street to Genesee Section. “No day is the same.”
On snowy April 21, 2021, Johnson and Brean would respond to five calls. One was for a man expressing thoughts of suicide, but an ambulance arrived before they did and they spoke to the man before he was taken to a hospital. Another call was from Rochester police to help with a woman who would not talk with them. .
Their calls come through a dispatcher after they’ve been routed through 911 or 211. PIC has 24/7 coverage, assigning one two-person team per shift but increasing to two teams during times of high call volumes. The city plans to expand PIC to 15 teams by the end of April.
Minority Reporter was invited by the city to ride with PIC from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 21. The stipulations were that the PIC members would be identified, but people who called for service would not be identified and private addresses would not be revealed.
On their way
Around midday, Brean and Johnson received a call to meet RPD officers off Genesee Street.
On the way, Brean described how they respond:
“The police are already on scene with this call, so there is a bit more urgency because we know they are waiting for us. There are some times we are dispatched and police have not accepted the job yet. If the person is violent or there’s concern about a weapon, the police need to clear the scene before we can go in. So we would be staged about two blocks (away), so we somewhat have an idea whether or not we need to run out the door or we can take a few minutes before leaving.”
Johnson said the dispatcher usually gives them some information about the call, but this was an exception.
“When we get to the scene, we’ll talk with one of the cops there,” he said.
Each has responded to an individual in crisis from thoughts of suicide, homelessness, grief or domestic violence. Johnson, who grew up in 14621, worked at Community Lutheran Ministries on Joseph Avenue and Laser Street, earned a master’s in social work and worked in schools in Florida before coming back to Rochester. Brean, who grew up in Wayne County and came to Rochester at 18, volunteered in a coffee house for the homeless and later ran a homeless shelter in Los Angeles.
“You have to go with the flow,” Johnson said of their preparation for calls to PIC. “You can’t predetermine exactly what you’re going to do. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”
“I try to practice mindfulness and be present in the moment,” Brean said. “Jumping ahead and going through all the what-ifs would absolutely drain me and burn me out. I might have a scenario in my head of how I might want things to work out … but that’s not where the person is at. … Being calm and being able to be present with that person is the most important key.”
A new approach
PIC was announced as a pilot in late January as part of the city’s response calls to reform police in the aftermath of police-involved deaths of Black men and women across the country.
When PIC started, the two-person teams responded only to what were deemed low-acuity calls – those where no crime was alleged and the person was not violent or actively planning suicide. At that time, RPD was not able to call a PIC if the call involved mental or behavioral health.
But the protocol changed, in part because of a new dispatch system. Now, RPD can summon PIC, and they can respond together.
Johnson said some officers consult with the PIC team on the best approach. “With the climate we’re in, a lot of them want to be hands off. They want to be, ‘Hey, the PIC team is here. Great. …’”
Johnson said he participated in protests in Rochester and he heard the community call for non-police response to calls involving mental health. Since the inception of PIC, he said he has been on calls with individuals who did not want to talk with police. PIC team members have a list of resources they can provide an individual on the spot. If the person provides contact information, the PIC team follows up to see how things are going and what else may be needed. PIC members strive to deescalate a situation, but they don’t provide therapy.
A PIC team always as two members, but they still are asked about safety.
“Maybe from the outside, looking in, this seems dangerous,” said Johnson, whose binder of resources has a cover sheet that reads safety first.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Why don’t you guys have guns?’ I said, because we’re not dealing with criminals, right?,” Johnson said. “These people have not committed crimes. These people are victims. They need help. They need support. I don’t like to live in the land of hypothetical situations. I like to deal with reality. And the reality is, uh, people having a mental health crisis are more likely in particularly black and Brown folks are more likely to be harmed if police are the only ones on the scene.”
Brean said PIC team members stay aware the situation.
“If we’re in a house where it’s hard to get around, asking people to step outside,” she said. “Can we move this to a safer area so that there is distance so that if something were to happen, we have a way to get out. Just being mindful of what’s going on.”
Different roles for social workers, police
When Johnson and Brean arrived at call for the missing teen, they were met by an officer who showed them a photo and said they wanted PIC to go to the door with them.
They didn’t know at the time that the family was most comfortable speaking Spanish. Brean, who had spent a year in Lima, Peru, was able to conduct the conversation.
It turns out the teen was not at that house. Brean said there had been some concern about a mental health issue. The officers left to continue their search and said they would let Johnson and Brean know if they were needed. (The teen was located April 26, according to a news release from RPD.)
Back at the office, where the team completes paperwork and make follow up calls when they don’t have back-to-back calls, Johnson and Brean provided perspective on the PIC’s early stages and its place in public safety.
“We’re new and there are growing pains, trying to figure out, okay, what’s our role, what’s their role,” Brean said. “And this is not been done before in the city.”
“The roles of social workers and police are different,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to take any credit away from police and what they do. We need them. If somebody is robbing the bank, please call this officer, do not call Dre to that scene. If somebody is having a mental health crisis, please call me to that scene. And not this officer. I think we just have a different skill set … I think it’s big to have empathy, as a social worker when you go out. It’s a lot more listening. … It’s not about telling.”