When I served the Baltimore Police Department, I performed a lot of unexpected jobs. A parent once called emergency services because the school crossing guard did not show up to work, so I filled in for the morning. Another time I was an animal control officer, because a squirrel had found its way into a man’s basement. I also once acted as a utility company representative when a woman was alarmed about her power being turned off. And I can’t count the times I was sent to manage people living on the street and was expected to fill the role of social worker.
I managed to perform most of these jobs reasonably well, and the residents of my city were grateful. But none of these situations required a police response. Every time I took one of these calls, I was “out of service,” meaning that the department could not send me to investigate serious, violent crimes.
What’s more, police are not better situated than anyone else to handle these calls. In fact, we’re often worse. Having an armed officer show up to nonviolent, non-urgent situations is bad practice because an officer’s presence alone may be enough to escalate a problem unnecessarily. And the burden of this risk falls on some of our most vulnerable neighbors and loved ones: People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than the average civilian.
What we really need to respond effectively to each call are community responders.
Under the community responder (CR) model, 911 operators direct behavioral health calls to a team of unarmed professionals such as social workers, mental health professionals, mediators and “credible messengers” — people with strong local ties, usually those who have overcome the same issues facing their clients.
A recent report titled “The Community Responder Model: How Cities Can Send the Right Responder to Every 911 Call,” co-authored by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the Center for American Progress, makes the case for this new approach.
Researchers analyzed 911 call data from eight large cities, finding that the majority of emergency calls were low- or medium-priority safety issues — those related to low-risk mental health, drugs and homelessness, and other quality-of-life and administrative complaints, such as neighbor disputes and minor traffic accidents. Researchers concluded that many of these calls could be safely diverted from police to people who were better suited to both prevent and respond to crime.
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the Center for American Progress estimate that community responders could address 21 to 38 percent of police calls for service, while an additional 13 to 33 percent could be handled behind the scenes and with proper call screening. The CR model has great potential to ease tensions between police and civilians, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color that are over-policed for minor issues and under-policed for serious crimes.
With more police resources available, officers could focus on building trust with community members. And without the distraction of every noncriminal nuisance and quality-of-life issue in our precincts, we would have the capacity to more thoroughly investigate violence and make arrests that take predators off the street.
The CR model would be perfect in my home city of Baltimore. There’s a perception that Baltimore’s violence is beyond fixing and that not enough people are doing anything about it, but our residents care deeply. They do not trust police to create safer streets, and public resources are scant.
I’m the founder and executive director of Unified Efforts, a community nonprofit that provides children with peaceable solutions to local problems. We train the next generation to handle serious neighborhood issues like gang disputes, as well as everyday matters like squirrels in basements and missing crossing guards at schools. If Baltimore had a CR program, the young people served by Unified Efforts could go to school for social work, train as community responders and get meaningful employment. They could work in the neighborhoods where they live and respond swiftly to those calls that do not require armed police.
There is no single magic solution that will repair police relationships in our communities, and no single solution for reducing crime. But I am confident in the community responder model because the evidence shows that the appropriate responders for low-level crimes and noncriminal problems are not, in fact, police. The CR model creates a comprehensive health and safety service network that police, public health experts and community members can all get behind.