Harvard University project to help Durham rethink who shows up to non-violent 911 calls

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – The City of Durham is rethinking who shows up to non-violent 911 calls. It’s one of five cities picked to participate in Harvard University’s Alternative 911 Emergency Response project.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said law enforcement officers are needed at violent calls but are not needed in all situations, including for mental health and substance abuse calls.

“What we want is the most appropriate response,” Schewel said. “Is it really necessary to have someone with a gun and a badge go to all those kinds of things, or is it better to have someone who’s trained in mental health, or trained in social work?”

The project’s leader, Gabriela Solis, said it’s about helping cities implement the right response at the right time.

“The purpose of the cohort is to support jurisdictions in creating or enhancing alternative 911 emergency responses that reduce reliance on traditional law enforcement in situations where mental and behavioral health, substance abuse treatments, and other forms of support are more suitable,” Solis said.

Harvard will provide technical support to help with alternative 911 responses and help the five jurisdictions collaborate with one another. Those jurisdictions are Harris County (Houston), Texas; Long Beach, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Phoenix, Arizona.

More than 60 jurisdictions applied to be part of the project run by Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab.

Durham’s recently formed community safety department will be the main focus of this effort. It plans to send unarmed social workers and nurses to certain nonviolent calls. The mayor said hiring is ongoing.

According to a City of Durham 911 call presentation, 20 percent of 911 calls involve violent or property crime.

CBS 17 asked Schewel if having a new team responding to some calls, and law enforcement officers responding to other calls, will slow down the work dispatchers are already doing.

“This is part of, exactly part of, what this work is going to be, is how do you triage those calls,” Schewel said. “You have to have somebody at 911, or people at 911, who are working there who know how to quickly triage those calls. So it should not slow it down, but it is going to require some slightly different expertise.”

Last week, CBS 17 reported that there are 28 vacant positions out of 60 at the Durham Emergency Communications Center. Schewel said the program won’t help with call response times, and the focus is on what the response is.

“We need to get that up. It’s important. This work is really more about the response,” Schewel said.

Solis said Durham’s Community Safety Department is part of the reason why it was picked to participate in the program.

“Durham was selected to participate in this project based on their level of community taskforce and stakeholder collaboration and progress towards implementing a multipronged alternative 911 response strategy through the creation of its new Community Safety Department,” Solis said. “This investment demonstrates a commitment to developing an array of alternative response teams to meet unique resident needs on a variety of mental health and quality of life concerns.”

The project will last about a year.

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