After George Floyd’s murder last year, millions of people took to the streets to demand improved policing in their communities. Today, communities like Baltimore’s are answering that call by redesigning how they respond to situations that might typically be answered by law enforcement officers.
A recent analysis of 911 call data in eight U.S. cities found that between 23% and 39% of calls for help were low-priority or non-urgent calls, such as noise complaints, loitering or non-urgent medical needs. Further, communities are seeing a pointed increase in lower-level calls. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Police Department, for example, saw the number of mental health and substance use crisis calls rise 68% from 2013 to 2018.
But, despite the variety of circumstances that compel a person to pick up the phone and dial 911, those calls are generally answered the same way: with the arrival of an armed police officer.
Law enforcement officials frequently respond to calls for help that fall outside traditional police duties, which means they are often not trained for the situation they encounter. For a person experiencing homelessness, mental health crisis or substance abuse addiction, arrest can make the situation worse rather than better. Although police shootings are rare events across the millions of interactions police have with the public every year, having armed officers respond to such situations has led to tragedy: Nearly one in four fatal police shootings involve someone with a mental illness.
Now, communities are asking a simple question that can fundamentally shift their approach to public safety: When a person is in crisis, who should take the call?
Citizens in Olympia, Washington, voted in 2017 to establish a public safety levy to improve police operations. This included support for a crisis response unit staffed by social workers embedded in the police department. In addition to responding to 911 calls, the crisis response unit preempts would-be 911 calls by conducting street outreach.
Crisis response programs can vary, but most are mobile units staffed by health professionals, such as social workers or community paramedics, dispatched as first responders to 911 calls. The model has been around since 1989, when Eugene, Oregon, launched a community policing initiative. More recently, the concept is catching on in cities around the country, including Baltimore; Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon; and Rochester, New York.
Community responder programs are an evolution of other models — some federally supported — that have sought to improve services for people with mental health issues. Many cities already have police officers responding to crisis calls alongside behavioral health counselors. More than 100 such programs were funded through grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. Many are working well — such as one in Douglas County, Kansas, which saw a 56% drop in jail bookings for people with serious mental illnesses over four years after implementing a co-responder model.
The community responder concept builds on these programs, positioning mental health professionals as first responders. Under its new Connect and Protect program, BJA will invest $20 million in proposals to support collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral health providers.
Community responder programs hold a great deal of promise as a cost-effective law enforcement reform. Eugene officials estimate that its program responded to about 20 percent of the calls dispatched from 911, and that this reduction in law enforcement resources saved the city $8.5 million.
Trailblazing cities are demonstrating that civilian first responders can be a compassionate, effective law enforcement reform — and many other cities and towns are now following their lead. They are enabling law enforcement officers to dedicate their time to solving other pressing community problems. Our cities and towns are stronger when they have a rich menu of first response options.
Ayesha Delany-Brumsey (email@example.com) is director of behavioral health at The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan membership organization representing officials in all three branches of state government. Kristen Mahoney (Kristen.Mahoney@ojp.usdoj.gov) serves as the acting director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the Office of Justice Programs at the United States Department of Justice.