Non-police care response: a step toward transformative justice
When we call for help, we want assurance that whoever arrives on the scene will make the situation better, not worse. How law enforcement responds to emergency calls has made public safety a priority in many communities. Residents, advocates and even service providers have begun looking closely at new ways to keep residents safe. One promising model is mobile response for people experiencing behavioral health crises that does not involve police.
In Cleveland, high-profile police killings of two unarmed residents sparked an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Police shot at Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell 137 times after a high-speed car chase. The DOJ found the Cleveland Division of Police regularly used excessive force, including abusive and cruel practices against people with disabilities. In a particularly troubling case, law enforcement officers killed Cleveland resident Tanisha Anderson, after her family called police for help during a mental health crisis.
Signed soon after the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the city’s consent decree with the DOJ mandated changes to the police department’s policies, procedures and practices.
Local advocates and service providers are calling on the city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to implement non-police care response that would send emergency medical technicians, social workers, mental health clinicians or trained peers with lived experience to provide support and compassion.
Columbus and Cincinnati have already begun to pilot this person-centered concept. In July, Cincinnati started a care response pilot called Alternative Response to Crisis (ARC). The ARC team consists of a licensed behavioral health specialist and a paramedic, both of whom work for the city and are trained in crisis intervention. Columbus began its part-time alternative response program in June 2021; at the discretion of the caller, the agent may connect the individual in crisis to a “Right Response Unit” that directs the caller to the appropriate services. The program only operates from noon to 4 p.m. on weekdays, and local community members are calling for an expansion of the program.
While Columbus and Cincinnati’s programs are relatively new, longer standing operations in cities across the country provide evidence of the effectiveness of non-police response. In 2021, a program in Eugene-Springfield, Oregon — Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) — received 16,218 calls for service, diverting between 3% and 8% of emergency calls away from a police response. The majority of CAHOOTS’s work has been non-emergency public assistance calls, welfare checks, and transportation of individuals who were either unhoused or experiencing a mental health issue.
The success of mobile non-police crisis response in other cities has shown that there is a huge need for health-first approaches to behavioral health emergencies and that in the vast majority of these calls, these crises do not result in danger for responders. Data and research ultimately thwart the notion that an armed patrol officer is always necessary in the case of a behavioral health crisis. It should also be noted that in the case of Eugene, even with an annual budget of only $2.1 million incorporated into municipal funds, their police department has continued to save an average of $8.5 million annually due to their non-police crisis response system.
A recent report by Policy Matters, the Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy Coalition and the Center for Community Solutions proposed funding this new work through a combination of funds available through the American Rescue Plan Act, city and county opioid settlement dollars, and existing Medicaid money for mental health and addiction.
Research shows that a non-police care response model not only saves lives but redefines public safety in a way that decriminalizes issues like homelessness, poverty, addiction, mental health and other disabilities. Both research and experience show that progress can be made locally to advance a care response model when local and state policymakers collaborate to transform our criminal legal system into a justice system for all.
In Ohio, policing, arrests, and incarceration disproportionately impact Black and brown communities. For example, Black Ohioans make up 45% of the population in state prisons while only constituting 13% of the population. People who live with mental illness and experience substance use disorder are more likely than others to be arrested and incarcerated.
Rather than focusing on health and justice, our local governments have relied on using armed law enforcement and the criminal legal system to address socio-economic issues and behavioral health challenges. Although an interaction with law enforcement does not always end with jail or prison, we’ve witnessed the devastating results of armed police interference in non-violent transgressions brought on by mental health crises, homelessness, and the like. Integrating a non-police care response model would benefit the city of Cleveland and serve as a step toward transformative justice for our most vulnerable neighbors.