Alabama city backs mental health program after officer’s conviction

Published 12:27 pm Sunday, May 16, 2021

Leaders in an Alabama city have agreed to support establishment of a new mental health crisis program.

Huntsville City Council members voted unanimously Thursday to back a diversion center that could help people experiencing mental difficulties. The center would be a project of the city, its police and WellStone Behavioral Health.

The vote came days after officer William Darby was convicted of murder in the killing of Jeffrey Parker. The man called 911 in 2018 saying he intended to kill himself. Two other officers talked with Parker as he held a gun to his own head, and evidence showed Darby entered the scene and shot the man after he failed to drop the weapon.

While the verdict was praised by Parker’s relatives and social justice advocates, it was criticized by Mayor Tommy Battle and Police Chief Mark McMurray, prompting calls for their removal.

Huntsville police respond to more than 1,000 calls related to suicide each year, McMurray said.

“This is not a police problem. This is a societal problem,” the chief said.

This partnership would include a $10 million crisis diversion center that officials hope to complete by July 2022. A smaller, temporary location already is operating.

The partnership is an extension of the police agency’s current mental health crisis response plan, which includes officers certified in crisis intervention.

The council meeting became heated at times, with community members asking for leadership changes and more accountability following the conviction of Darby, who was placed on paid leave after being convicted in Parker’s death. While the panel previously voted to pay as much as $125,000 for Darby’s defense, member Devyn Keith said he now realizes that was a mistake after seeing video of the slaying.

Darby is free on bond and will be sentenced in a few weeks.