DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The look of public safety in Durham could soon be changing as some city councilors hope to cut some vacant police officer positions so they can hire mental health responders and send them to certain calls instead.
Durham city manager Donna Page has proposed to create a Community Safety Department that would oversee new initiatives focused on alternatives to policing.
This would include sending social workers and nurses to certain calls, instead of armed officers.
Currently, Page is only proposing to cut five vacant police officer positions this upcoming fiscal year.
However, four city councilors have said they want to cut 20 vacant police officer positions this fiscal year and a total of 60 vacant positions over the next three years.
Pierce Freelon said he supports cutting these 60 positions to help build a team of mental health responders that would respond to mental health, traffic, and quality of life calls.
“You don’t need a police officer rolling up to the scene of every situation,” Freelon said.
The groups Durham 4 All and Durham Beyond Policing are behind this proposal.
On Durham 4 All’s website, the group said Quality of Life calls include different situations such as abandonment, alcohol violations, animal problems, barking dogs, drugs, gambling, noise complaints, and even the sound of shots.
In some of these situations, some police officers tell CBS 17 a law enforcement officer may still need be present to enforce the law.
“I understand the concept, I just don’t know about the reality,” said Larry Smith, spokesperson for the Durham County FOP.
Smith also said that even mental health situations can escalate, especially if a weapon is in use.
“Those things can turn into very serious situations very rapidly, so I see a big safety concern for people who might be in the middle of that,” Smith said.
Smith said he is also concerned about city councilors wanting to cut 60 vacant police officer positions over the next three years.
Even though those positions are vacant, he said the department is still using the funding to pay officers to work overtime and cover shifts.
But Freelon said police will not have to respond to as many calls once they hire unarmed responders to take off some of this load.
“We’re not taking money away from public safety, we’re actually putting money into public safety and re-shifting where some of it goes,” Freelon said.
Some in the community are concerned about how quickly these unarmed responder positions would be filled since Durham is struggling to hire different positions in public safety.
Currently, there are 71 vacant police officer positions, 26 911 operator positions, and the 18 jobs added to Bull City United’s violence interrupter program in January have still not been filled.
CBS 17 asked Freelon if Durham will be able to fill these mental health responder positions quickly.
“I believe that we have an amazing human resources staff, and that they’re going to work as hard as they can to fill these jobs with qualified professionals,” Freelon said.
CBS 17 asked city officials how these mental health responders will be dispatched and if they will ride with police officers to scenes, but they said those details are still being worked out.
City council is expected to discuss the police budget during their budget work session on Thursday, May 27 at 9 a.m.