DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – After a year of preparation, Durham’s Community Safety Department will start sending unarmed responders to mental health and quality of life calls starting Wednesday.

The team of unarmed responders will be called HEART responders, which stands for Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team.

The three-person community response team will be made up of a clinician, a peer support specialist and an EMT.

The types of calls these unarmed responders will respond to include suicide threats, mental health crises, trespassing, welfare checks, intoxicated persons, prostitution and public indecency.

“What we have done is we have identified the specific call types that will be appropriate for these responses,” said John Zimmerman, operations administrator for Durham’s community safety department.

Unarmed responders will only be sent to nonviolent calls. But if a situation escalates, Zimmerman said the responders will be able to call for backup on the radio.

Zimmerman said that another pilot that is rolling out next week is the Crisis Call Diversion program that will include adding a clinician to the 911 center who can quickly connect with a resident in crisis.

“They’ll also be able to do other professional screening of what types of in-person response may be needed,” Zimmerman said.

Ryan Smith, director of the community safety department said that the team of unarmed responders will be working Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Smith said they will also only be covering eight police beats and they will add more areas once seven more workers come on board. later this summer. Here is a map of area the unarmed responders will serve: 

He said they will also start responding to mental health calls seven days a week and expand the hours to evenings once more responders come on board.

Smith said sending unarmed responders to nonviolent mental health calls will take some of the load off police and allow them to focus more on violent crime. Smith also said this will allow Durham to be more equipped to send the right responder to different situations.

“It really gives us additional types of personnel so that we are in a better position to best match the needs of residents in crisis,” Smith said.

The final pilot that the community safety department will launch next week is the care navigation program that provides in-person or phone-based follow-up within 48 hours after meeting with one of their responders.

A licensed mental health clinician and peer support specialist will serve in the care navigation pilot that starts on Thursday.

Abena Bediako is one of the clinical managers who will start going out on mental health calls as part of the HEART responder team next week.

“I will lead a team of three, the three-person team, that will be the licensed clinician, a peer support specialist, and an EMT,” Bediako said.

Bediako has worked in community mental health for decades and she said she is prepared to take on this new challenge. 

“I have 20 years of experience going into the community and going into places that some folks wouldn’t want to go,” Bediako said. “I see this as my calling to go out and help our neighbors and help our community and to help those who may not have a voice. I want to be able to provide the right response to them and to connect them to services so they can heal and that they can get the help and the resources that they need.”

For more information on Durham’s community safety department, go to the following link: Community Safety | Durham, NC (durhamnc.gov)