Center for American Progress & Law Enforcement Education Partnership Support Community Responder Programs

Photo Courtesy of OPPRC

In a recent analysis of low-priority 911 calls related to quality-of-life issues or social service needs in five cities across the U.S., research indicates that 23 percent to 45 percent of calls for service were for less urgent or non-criminal issues such as noise complaints, disorderly conduct, wellness checks or behavioral health concerns.

The study was funded by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Law Enforcement Education Partnership (LEAP). Findings pointed out what advocates had always expected – that trained civilians who were experienced in finding long-term solutions to the root causes of community concerns could safely resolve most issues.

By dispatching civilians instead of post-certified officers, unjust arrests and uses of force – which often disproportionately target people of color with behavioral health disorders and disabilities – could be avoided. Officers could then focus on addressing more serious crime and even strengthening relationships within urban communities.

LEAP and CAP have recommended that cities embrace the concept of a corps of non-police civilian first responders that they have dubbed “Community Responders” who can improve outcomes for residents and officers alike. The vision calls for Community Responders to respond to two specific categories of calls that often do not require police intervention – behavioral health and social service calls and quality-of-life and conflict calls.

Community Responders who are trained as paramedics, clinicians or crisis intervention specialists would be capable of answering calls related to mental health, addiction and homelessness. Working with peer navigators, bridges will be built using the personal experiences of the volunteers. 

Community Responders could also be dispatched when calls come in for nuisance complaints and non-violent conflicts. These complaints could also include reports of suspicious people, neighbor disputes, youth behavioral issues, trespassing, and even simple assaults that do not involve guns or knives. Using their deep connections in the community and extensive training in conflict resolution, these volunteers can make a difference in people’s lives.

In a separate study of eight U.S, cities, Community Responders were thought to be able to handle between 21 percent and 38 percent of 911 calls. Additionally, 12 percent to 33 percent of calls could be resolved administratively without dispatching an officer. 

Some version of the Community Responder model is already being implemented in San Francisco, Austin, Denver, Eugene Oregon and Olympia Washington.

In Austin, the Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (EMCOT) receives calls related or mental health crises routed by 911 operators.  Clinicians are often able to de-escalate crises over the phone, though EMCOT counselors and other professionals are available for dispatch. EMCOT follows up with clients to link them to community-based support and other social services.

Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) has the capacity to send out teams of paramedics, mental health professionals, and peer navigators for calls related to behavioral health and substance use. Started as a pilot in June 2020, STAR intervened in 750 calls during its first six months, all of which were resolved without police intervention.

The CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Oregon was established in 1898. It dispatches medical and crisis intervention professionals instead of police to provide wellness checks and behavioral health crisis intervention. By 2019, CAHOOTS teams responded to approximately 20 percent of all calls for service. They had never reported a serious injury to staff or clients during their more than 30 years of service.

Olympia, Washington’s Crisis Response Unit (CRU) works with civilian crisis interventionists trained to respond to individuals experiencing behavioral health crises, substance abuse disorders, and other social service needs. They also conduct proactive outreach to ongoing clients to prevent future crises. The CRU also works with a sister organization, Familiar Faces, which provides long-term peer support in areas such as housing and health care.

Launched in San Francisco just seven months ago, the Street Crisis Response Team (SCRT) program is a partnership between the city’s Fire Department and Department of Health.  Teams of community paramedics, behavioral health clinicians and peer specialists’response to mental health and substance use concerns.

Support for civilian first responders is growing across America. Today nearly eight in ten U.S. voters support diverting mental health hand substance use-related 911 calls to trained non-police professionals. The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition has been leading the fight locally to create a non-police crisis response team through their Help Not Handcuffs initiative. Learn and Share sessions have been held in all five city council districts. OPPRC is also circulating a petition for citizens to sign.       

OPPRC will present to criminal justice committee at 2 pm today.


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