Sandy Springs wants mental health expert to help deescalate tense 911 calls

The Sandy Springs Police Department is researching best practices to ensure the safety of the person who would accompany officers responding to a 911 call and everyone involved.l. AJC FILE / BEN GRAY/BGRAY@AJC .COM
The Sandy Springs Police Department is researching best practices to ensure the safety of the person who would accompany officers responding to a 911 call and everyone involved.l. AJC FILE / BEN GRAY/BGRAY@AJC .COM

The Sandy Springs Police Department plans to hire a social worker or similar expert who has the training to deescalate situations involving people experiencing a mental health crisis. It’s one of several safety measures department leadership has discussed recently.

Deputy Chief Keith Zgonc said the department is researching best practices to help promote non-violent solutions when police respond to 911 calls.

There is no set date for bringing in a mental health professional but Mayor Rusty Paul said the police department has the go-ahead from the city to hire someone.

During a virtual forum Thursday held by Leadership Sandy Springs, Zgonc and Paul answered questions from the public on the police department’s stance on hiring and training officers, as well as community relations.

Paul cited residents’ concerns and national unrest over police violence after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.

“The truth is if it can happen in any community, it can happen in our community,” Paul said.

Paul and Zgonc said the department focuses on quality hiring, continuous training on crisis negotiation, and recognizing biases. Zgonc said that officers calmed a woman and stopped her from jumping off a bridge onto I-285 in November.

The deputy chief also said extensive background checks are done before hiring new officers. Before the recent hire of an officer from New Jersey, personnel visited the recruit’s town to talk with neighbors, their employer and to a review work files, he added.

According to the Sandy Springs police, nearly 70% of the north Fulton city’s 173 officers are white. There are 36 Black officers in the department, 14 Hispanics and four Asians. Thirty-two women are sworn officers. All will be outfitted with new tasers in the coming weeks.

Higher ranking Sandy Springs police personnel who seldom go on patrol don’t usually wear body cameras. But during a City Council meeting last week, Zgonc said that nationwide calls for increased transparency after a summer of social unrest over police violence moved the department to ask for 40 new body cameras.

During the Leadership Sandy Springs forum, Paul commented that there is no guarantee violent and tragic incidents won’t arise. “I think we can guarantee that a Georgia Floyd incident wouldn’t happen,” he said. “But I think there could be situations that arise where mistakes are made and then that creates problems. But we do everything that we can do from a training and technology point of view to make sure that we minimize the risk for that sort of thing.”

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