I-TEAM: Deputies cope with lack of funding for mental health

Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 5:39 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-TEAM is uncovering new information about the death of an Augusta man at the hands of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.

Nelson Graham’s family says he was in a mental health crisis and that’s why they reached out to deputies for help.

They now regret that call for help after deputies ultimately used a taser on Graham.

He later died.

The second in command at the sheriff’s office sits down with the I-TEAM and admits deputies need more training and resources when dealing with mental health patients.

The I-TEAM also uncovered mental health calls have skyrocketed in Augusta-Richmond County. We obtained data that found a 66 percent increase in mental health calls to the sheriff’s agency in five years.

The agency tells our Will Rioux it’s asked commissioners for more money for that critical training but was turned down.

And that request was before the 911 call to Nelson Graham’s home in December. His family is devastated that more could have been done.

So the I-TEAM pressed Augusta’s new mayor for answers. An incident report is shining a light on the night deputies visited nelson graham at his home on George Road.

We also obtained 911 call recordings.

“We got called out to do a mental health assessment on a 33-year-old male.”

“The family says he’s been threatening to hurt the children in the home, and he’s been aggressive.

“Officers have already been dispatched.”

On Dec. 16, 2022, at 10:15 p.m., Richmond County deputies Kevin Clarke and Madison Emerson were the officers sent to graham’s home for a 10-13, a court-ordered mental evaluation.

The report reads, his wife, Christina Graham, called the mobile crisis hotline because no one responded to the court-ordered mental evaluation she filed on her husband and Nelson was “behaving erratically.”

Both deputies reported finding Nelson sitting in his bedroom with his arms folded over his chest.

While attempting to transport him to a hospital “deputies grabbed Nelson Graham’s arms attempting to unfold from his chest. Graham was passively resisting via refusing to give deputies his arms.” Eventually, all three ended up on the ground “where deputies attempted to physically detain him”.

Deputy Emerson gave verbal commands to graham which were ignored before using a TASER.

He remained “dead weight covering his arms.” Deputies again used a TASER and noted it was “still showing little to no effect” so Deputy Emerson drive stunned him “several times.”

While handcuffing him and moving him to the living room deputies note Graham is still “dead weight and had not spoken a word.”

They began CPR and even used Narcan. Graham was transported to the hospital where he died.

“I was devastated. I was I couldn’t believe it. You know, I’m still trying to process it right now,” Denzel Graham is Nelson’s little brother. He was a father to eight children, but Denzel says his brother always had challenges with mental health.

“Situations like this should never occur ever in life where somebody’s life is taken away due to mental health.”

The incident report tells us body cameras were rolling. The I-TEAM requested a copy but so far it has not been provided. So, we don’t know what it shows, and we don’t know why Nelson Graham died. The sheriff’s office tells us toxicology results are pending.

While that investigation is ongoing, the sheriff’s office tells me mental health calls like this are skyrocketing and they need more help.

Chief Patrick Clayton is the second in command to Sheriff Richard Roundtree at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, “In law enforcement, there’s three issues that we’re asked to do. And asked to deal with by the citizens. They’re going to be homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health subjects. But we’re not given the resources to effectively deal with them.”

He tells the I-TEAM the men and women of the sheriff’s office need the resources they once recently had.

Just in 2020, a Crisis Intervention Team, or the CIT program was announced with great fanfare even making our newscast that year.

As part of the program, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office partnered with the state of Georgia through Serenity Behavioral Health to pair deputies with social workers who are trained to deal with mental health calls.

“We did see that had value,” explains Chief Clayton. “We did see that we were starting to reduce calls.”

The problem is shortly after the start of the CIT program, the COVID pandemic started.

The sheriff’s office says limited state resources and manpower and ultimately, money for the CIT program was cut.

Meanwhile, as the I-TEAM showed you in a yearlong series ‘Faces of homelessness’ our homeless population jumped nearly 150% percent following the pandemic and our mental health systems remain in crisis.

Will Rioux: “Do you feel like the CIT program could have helped in that incident?”

Chief Clayton: “Yes, and I hate to speculate on that, but I always I think that if you have a person as a trained specialist in dealing with, you know, mental health subjects, it could definitely be a benefit. And it’s something I think we have to we have to prioritize in the future.”

We analyzed five years of data from 2017 to 2022 and found mental health calls have increased a whopping 66 percent in Augusta, culminating in more than 28 hundred calls for deputies in 2022 alone.

“They’re not one, one or five-minute calls,” explains Chief Clayton. “These are calls that are going to be 30 minutes, hour to sometimes hours because we’re dealing with people that are mentally ill.”

Critical time prevents deputies from getting back on the road to patrol for calls they ultimately are not adequately trained to handle.

“This is something that we’ve received a lot of support initially from the mayor and the commissioners saying that they wanted to have this program and then we proposed it last year... and crickets,” says Chief Clayton.

Last November the sheriff’s office asked commissioners to create two behavioral health specialists under the sheriff’s office since Serenity was having staffing shortage issues.

The cost is $150,000 including salary, benefits, and equipment.

According to the budget request from the sheriff’s office, it requested 15 items but only three were approved. The Behavioral Health Specialists were not one of them.

The specialists would also provide wraparound services doing follow-ups and making sure mental health subjects are connected with resources and a case file is started.

The I-TEAM pressed Augusta’s new Mayor Garnett Johnson about local dollars to deal with a local crisis.

Mayor Garnett Johnson “The city of Augusta certainly has some budgetary challenges and certainly wouldn’t want to commit to that at this point.”

Will Rioux: “But is that something that you can maybe push for or that you would push for in the future?”

Mayor Garnett Johnson: “I’m not certain as I stated, our budget is already stretched beyond control right now, doing some of the simplest things for our taxpayers, making sure we maintain our infrastructure, make sure that we provide adequate lighting in areas right now that does not have it. So, I would be for supporting those dollars as they flow through the state and federal level.”

A clear problem with no clear solution.

The I-TEAM asked Nelson Graham’s brother Denzel if he thought his brother would still be alive today if those mental health specialists were in place.

“Absolutely. 100 percent… to see the shift in his life and to see that he was crying out to us for help and we tried to get him help and that cost him his life, it’s going to forever be with me and stick with me.”

A brother, father, and husband shouting for help with no one trained to help him there to answer the call.

In November, the I-TEAM showed you yet another incident where a family member called deputies for help getting a loved one to the hospital. A mom called when her son was in crisis and a deputy ended up hitting him in the head and putting him in jail for two weeks. When the I-TEAM started asking questions, all of his charges were dropped.