Dispatching social workers instead of police

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 14th of July, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today:

AUDIO: When I say defund, you say police. Defund! Police! Defund! Police!

This is one of the more extreme demands. But more than a dozen cities around the country have announced large cuts to their police budgets.

BROWN: But where will this funding go instead? WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Last month, city councils in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York made significant cuts to their police budgets.

In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced yesterday the city will cut $76 million or a fifth of the police department’s budget for next year. That’s significantly less than the 50 percent budget slash the city council is calling for. 

DURKAN: Over the last decade we’ve asked police to respond to so many of society and government’s failures, including substance abuse, behavioral health crisis and homelessness. But it’s clear that law enforcement is not always the appropriate avenue to deal with these issues.

Funds diverted away from police budgets will pay for a wide-range of causes and organizations. Baltimore wants to offer black-owned businesses forgivable loans. Philadelphia says it will spend more on affordable housing. 

But many cities have a common plan: former police funds will now pay for unarmed social workers and mental health providers who respond to non-criminal 911 calls. 

Last month, San Francisco mayor London Breed announced police officers will no longer respond to calls regarding mental health, homeless people, or school and neighbor disputes. 

BREED: We’ve seen a lot of real change in San Francisco but also knowing that we have a lot more to do, including ending the use of police in response to non-criminal activity. 

Before summer protests erupted, several cities had already been working on this strategy. 

Vinnie Cervantes is the organizing director of DASHR. That stands for Denver Alliance of Street Health Response. Last year, DASHR and other community organizations began partnering with the city to divert people away from the criminal justice system.

CERVANTES: We’ve used law enforcement to navigate a lot of what could be considered public health issues. And so mental health crisis, homelessness, substance use, and by virtue of doing it that way, we’ve criminalized a lot of people that would otherwise be approached with treatment and a different type of system. 

So on June 1st, Denver launched the Support Team Assisted Response program, better known as STAR. 

When 911 dispatchers receive a call about a mental health issue, trespassing, or a neighbor dispute, they don’t call the police. Instead, they send a van staffed with a mental health professional and a paramedic. 

Cervantes says the van has already responded to more than 100 calls. 

CERVANTES: So these are things that otherwise police would show up to. 

Austin, Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Eugene, Oregon, and Seattle have created similar programs. 

One study estimates that 10 percent of police calls have to do with mental illness. Vinnie Cervantes says he hopes a growing portion of Denver’s $400 million police budget will go toward programs like STAR. 

But some criminologists caution that decisions to cut police budgets and responsibilities need to be made carefully. 

Thaddeus Johnson worked as a police officer in Memphis, Tennessee for more than a decade. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice. He supports bolstering mental health and social worker services and says the odds of a call going wrong are low. 

Eugene, Oregon’s independent mental health response team answered one-fifth of all dispatch calls last year. Less than 1 percent required police backup. 

Still, Johnson says it’s safest for these professionals to partner with police.

JOHNSON: The potential is there. You imagine 1000 different incidents go great. A million go great. You have that one social worker who went in the scene didn’t have the protection and something happened. Right. So it’s a way that we can do it safely. 

Police in the small town of Price, Utah, use the partnership method. Four years ago, Price had one of the highest opioid overdose rates in the state. 

Price Sargeant Kelly Maynes says in response officers took Crisis Intervention Training and began partnering with a local mental health clinic. When possible, a police officer and a mental health professional respond to calls together. 

MAYNES: Our first goal is to make sure that the area is safe for them to do so. And once they’re there and can address some of the issues we take a backseat. 

Wesley Skogan is a political scientist at Northwestern University. He points out that cities asked police to respond to mental health crises or domestic disturbance calls because they are available around the clock. Skogan says if cities choose to reassign those jobs, there needs to be robust plans in place.

SKOGAN: They have to think about safety, they have to think about the 24 by 7 problem. A lot of mental health episodes are going to happen at four o’clock in the morning. 

John Hollywood is a policing researcher at the RAND Corporation. He says when cities cut police budgets, it’s important that money still goes toward programs and organizations that improve public safety. Or else there could be an increase in actual, criminal calls.

HOLLYWOOD: I think just sort of generally just putting it somewhere in Community Investment… without kind of thought toward where the money is going. It would not surprise me if you didn’t sort of see negative consequences from doing that.

John Hollywood and the other criminologists I talked to admit the debate over police budgets, roles, and responsibilities is messy. But it’s also an opportunity to clarify what communities want and need from the men and women tasked with protecting them.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) A person holds up a sign advocating for defunding the police as people gather to mark Juneteenth, Friday, June 19, 2020, in St. Louis. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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