xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Zirpoli: Reform that supports police ‘can save money, time, resources — and lives’ | COMMENTARY

One of the more politically charged issues of the day is referred to as “police reform.” And while there are many layers within this issue to be addressed, some cities are looking at reasonable solutions that both support their police departments and their communities. I think it all starts with enhancing our 911 system.

Grace Hauck, writing for USA Today, reports that 911 operators in Denver, Colorado, as in much of America, had only two choices — calling the police or calling the fire department. Frequently, however, neither are appropriate first responders for the problem at hand.

Advertisement

So Denver officials set up a third alternative for operators: The Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program. The STAR program included a two-person team — a medic and a clinician — to be available for 911 calls from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week, that doesn’t need to involve the police. The program “replaces traditional law enforcement responders with health care workers for some emergency calls” according to Hauck.

A nationwide study by The New York Times found that the police in New Orleans, Sacramento, and Montgomery County, Maryland, spent only 4 percent of its time handling violent crimes. Most of their time was spent responding to problems that have little to do with crime and could have been better handled by other professionals.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Washington Post found that since 2015, nearly 1,400 people with mental health issues have been fatally shot by the police after a 911 call was referred to the local police department. In Denver, during the first six months of the STAR program 748 calls responded to by the STAR team were made with no shootings or arrests. Importantly, this small pilot program reduced the number of 911 calls to the police by 3 percent during the same period last year. Thus, the police could be used more efficiently and effectively where they were most needed. Hauck found that the STAR program responded to calls dealing with homelessness and calls about people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The STAR program is based on a program that has been used in Eugene, Oregon since 1989. The staff in Eugene are taught to deescalate situations. In 2019, the program responded to over 24,000 calls to 911, taking about 20 percent of the 911 calls that previously would have gone to the police. Dispatchers there are taught to divert 911 calls involving a behavioral health or substance abuse issues. As stated by a Denver city spokesman, “The intent of STAR is to send the right response, not a one-size fits all response. People call 911 for an array of reasons and it’s not always something that involves risk or a criminal element.”

Instead of the alternative response model used in the STAR program, some police departments, such as Los Angeles and San Antonio, according to Hauck, have partnered with mental health professionals and are experimenting with a co-responder model. When they receive a 911 call involving citizens experiencing a mental health crisis, the police co-respond with their mental health professional partners.

Both the alternative response and the co-response models try to reduce the number of problems dumped on the police by providing them with more resources when responding to 911 calls. Other cities are trying to do the same. For example, in Berkeley, California, the city moved traffic enforcement from the police to a new Department of Transportation, staffed by trained civilians.  Now the police there can spend more time on fighting crime — their primary mission.

Advertisement

As stated by Sarah Holder and Kara Harris writing for Bloomberg News, “The process of building alternatives can’t happen overnight: It requires adequate funding, a robust network of well-supported social resources and community buy-in. But when it works, advocates insist that these non-police first responders can save money, time, resources — and lives.”

Other cities are looking at other ways to relieve police departments of dealing with non-criminal issues. For example, in Sacramento, California, a Mental Health First program started in 2020 is a crisis response service, staffed by a team of trained volunteers, to respond to calls from folks who have a family member experiencing a mental health crisis. This program avoids the 911 system altogether, saves time in seeking emergency help, and directly contacts the specific aid required.

None of these programs is meant to replace a community’s need for a trained police department, but to supplement and support more effective community emergency services. All of these programs are a win-win for the police and the community. Hopefully, they can be replicated in other communities.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster.  His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement