Durham unarmed responders won’t hit the streets until spring at the earliest, director says

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — As the city of Durham works to recruit employees for its new community safety department, the new unarmed responders may not begin work until spring of 2022 at the earliest, the new director said Tuesday.

In June, the Durham City Council approved spending $2.8 million to create a community safety department that will focus on alternative policing initiatives, which includes sending unarmed responders to certain calls.

The council agreed to cut five vacant police positions to help fund the program and freeze up to 15 police positions that may be moved over to the community safety department later in the fiscal year.

The department will be made up of 15 employees and three of those full-time positions have already been filled. These include the community safety director, a licensed clinical social worker, and a community safety manager.

Ryan Smith started in his new role as director of the community safety department on July 5, after the city promoted him from his last position with the city as the Innovation Team (I-Team) Director where he focused on criminal justice reform.

Smith said the department plans to hire a total of seven unarmed responders with backgrounds as social workers or nurses and these individuals will respond to low-risk calls which include minor traffic accidents and mental health calls.

“Our goal in this is, really simply, to make sure that we are sending the right response based on the needs that people have,” Smith said.

But Smith said the positions for the new unarmed responders will not be posted until the fall at the earliest and those workers will not be out in public until the spring.

“They will hit the streets after a period of thorough and careful planning, which we are in the middle of now,” Smith said.

He added the city is working closely with other cities across the U.S. that have already launched a program similar to this.

As CBS 17 has previously reported, the city of Eugene, Oregon has been sending unarmed responders out in the community for years through their CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program.

In that program, a paramedic and a social worker respond to mental health calls in pairs.

Smith said he isn’t sure yet if Durham will follow the same model as Eugene, but he said they do not anticipate sending unarmed responders out on their own.

“We will do our homework, learn from others, and also engage all the right stakeholders here in Durham,” Smith said.

CBS 17 asked Smith what will happen if an unarmed responder is at a scene where the situation escalates, and things turn violent.

“I’m sure we’ll also have a system like they do in Eugene, where first responders can call for backup and assistance if they need it,” Smith said.

As CBS 17 has previously reported, in 2019 there were 150 calls where CAHOOTS unarmed responders in Eugene had to call for backup out of the 18,583 calls that year. And officials with the program said they could not remember a time when an unarmed responder was injured or hurt while on a mental health call.

Smith said the program will start with seven unarmed responders, but he anticipates the department will grow in the future.

“It seems to me that if it’s successful it will have to grow, you can’t meet alternative response needs with seven positions,” Smith said.

Smith said the department is in the process of building a website where people can go to get more information about the department.

He said the city has posted two new positions in the department which include an administrative specialist and a community-centered designer.

If you would like to apply for any of the positions in the community safety department, click on the following link to the city’s website.

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