It Is Time for a New Version of Public Safety

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In February of this year, The Lens Nola published an article entitled After George Floyd’s murder, the New Orleans City Council created a committee to hear from ‘historically marginalized communities.’ It never met. The committee was formed, in part, as a response to the request by local social justice advocates to examine how the city’s resources are allocated across the criminal justice system and form an alternative public safety response. However, since the protests that swept the city during the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death, the city has faced an unprecedented rise in violent crime with homicides and carjackings outpacing the national average. Many local officials, once firmly in support of an alternative public safety response, have softened their stance and shied away from public support of the idea. New Orleans, now more than ever needs a restructured public safety response model that matches calls for service to the appropriate responders. It is time for a community responder model.

What is the community responder model and why does New Orleans need it?

A community responder model is an intelligent approach to public safety response. The model diverts low-level non-emergency calls for service away from the police and onto the plate of unarmed civilian responders. Community responders are trained to handle a wide variety of calls including mental health, behavioral health, substance use, wellness & safety checks, noise complaints, and non-violent disputes between neighbors. The model ensures that calls for service have an appropriate response by matching the expertise of the responder with the needs of the call. For example, calls involving a person in a mental health crisis require a mental health professional, not an armed police officer. However, noise complaint calls don’t require either a police officer or a mental health professional, instead, a credible messenger (a person that is from a particular area and knows the community) might be needed. The community responder model would allow New Orleans to screen calls and dispatch the appropriate responder.

The Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the Center for American Progress examined 911 call data from 8 cities including New Orleans. Their report found that nearly 30% of 911 calls in New Orleans could be handled by community responders. Having a team of trained community responders managing these low-level calls would free up valuable time for the shrinking New Orleans Police Department.

The New Orleans Police Department is suffering from a critical manpower shortage. The city has already lost nearly 50 officers in 2022 and NOPD’s average response time for calls is over two hours. Response time for emergency calls is a troubling 30 minutes. However, the bulk of the lag time is for non-emergency calls at a jaw-dropping 163 minutes. In comparison, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office’s response time averages 4 minutes for emergency calls and 11 minutes for non-emergency calls. NOPD simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to respond to calls timely. Having community responders handle the non-emergency calls for service would help NOPD reduce its response time for emergency calls for service such as incidents of violent crimes. 

Furthermore, having community responders handle low-level calls for service will also assist in NOPD’s ability to proactively police by giving officers more time to patrol high crime areas and follow-up leads in ongoing investigations.

More than mental health

Mayor Cantrell’s administration recently launched a mental health response program. However, as Doxey Kamara pointed out in their article in the Tulane Hullabaloo, the pilot program falls short in two ways. First, the program is only available in the third district and doesn’t physically dispatch responders to a scene. Instead, mental health professionals handle situations over the phone. Secondly, the program only focuses on mental health calls which account for only a small portion of the non-emergency calls that can be handled by community responders. 

Quality of life calls include noise complaints, loitering persons, panhandling, etc. all of which are non-emergent calls that may not involve a person living with mental illness but can easily be handled by community responders.    

This is not a new concept

The idea of having unarmed trained civilians respond to calls for service is far from a new or novel idea. The Department of Children and Families Services and Adult Protection Services have been operating under the model since their inception.

Organizations like Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and their “Help, not Handcuffs” initiative have been at the forefront of the movement for a local alternative response model. Other cities across the country have had a community responder model in action for years. For example, Eugene Oregon’s CAHOOTS program has acted as first responders for calls involving intoxicated persons, people living with mental illness,  disoriented persons, and other social service type calls. There are also very similar programs in Denver, Olympia, Rochester, Austin, Louisville, and Newark. Many other cities are in various stages of implementation of community responder programs. It is past time that New Orleans implement a community responder program.

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