Durham city manager to propose new ‘safety department’ focused on policing alternatives

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Mental health workers and social workers could soon be responding to several 911 calls in Durham.

On May 17, Durham city manager Wanda Page plans to propose the creation a new safety and wellness department that will focus on alternative policing initiatives.

A recent review of 948,000 of the 911 calls in Durham found that about 480,000 of those calls came from residents dialing 911 and the rest were police initiated. The study found that 97 percent of the resident-initiated calls did involve a violent crime and only 2 percent of the calls led to an arrest.

“Look around the country at all of the controversies surrounding police when there is over-policing,” said Mayor Steve Schewel. “So, what we want to try to do is have the appropriate response. If it’s a mental health crisis, let’s get a mental health person there.”

Schewel said officials don’t yet know exactly where the funding will come from the new department, how much it will cost to fund, or if any new employees will be hired.

But, the department will oversee programs the city will implement in the coming years. That includes the expansion of the Bull City United Violence Interrupter Program.

The groups Durham Beyond Policing and Durham For All proposed using 10 percent of the Durham Police Department’s budget to help fund the new department.

“I think people see the police as the only people who take care of us and we’re asking for an expansion of other roles that also take care of the community,” said Kyla Hartsfield, a community volunteer with Durham Beyond Policing.

CBS 17 asked Mayor Schewel if the city plans to cut 10 percent of the police department’s budget to help fund the new safety department.

“We’re definitely not going to take 10 percent of the police departments budget, period,” Schewel said.

Schewel added that it is possible positions may be moved around for the new department, but all of that is still in the planning stages.

Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton said he first proposed the idea of sending unarmed mental health workers to calls last year. He’s in support of this idea, but he has questions about how this new department would work.

“All of the pieces that would comprise this proposed new department, I’m in support of. But does that equate to a whole new branch on our city org chart?” Middleton said. “I can’t answer that right now. I’ll have to hear the city manager’s proposal.”

The Durham Fraternal Order of Police was not available for an on-camera comment on Monday. In a letter they sent to city leaders, they asked that funding not be cut from the police department’s budget.

“The City of Durham should find additional money to pay for this, just as they did with spending almost $1 million to hire 18 more people for the Bull City Violence Interrupter Initiative,” the FOP letter said.

The city manager is expected to officially propose the new safety and wellness department on May 17. If it is approved, Schewel said the plan is to get to work on this department as soon as possible in July.

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