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Alternative 911 Responses Can Build Trust and Improve Outcomes

The vast majority of calls are about distress, not violent crime. Dispatching social workers and other professionals rather than law enforcement can improve outcomes in many cases.

Two people sitting in the front of a van at night wearing medical face masks.
Mobile Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) teams have been operating in Eugene, Ore., since 1989. The CAHOOTS program has been a model for efforts in other cities. (Courtesy of White Bird Clinic)
In Brief:
  • Fewer than 3 percent of 911 calls have to do with violent crime.

  • Law enforcement officers receive little training in dealing with behavioral health or addiction. Most feel best equipped to fight crime.

  • A commission created by the Council of State Governments Justice Center has issued a report on emerging practices for alternative emergency response programs.

  • Anthony Holloway started his law enforcement career back in 1985. Now the chief of police in St. Petersburg, Fla., he’d long since realized that many officers are sent to address problems that they weren’t trained to handle, but there was no other option. That is, until 2021.

    At the beginning of that year, the St. Petersburg City Council approved a pilot program allowing dispatchers to send social workers to respond to calls about emergencies such as mental health crises, complaints about the homeless population, truancy or suicide threats. The program, Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL), followed a model that has been in place in some communities for decades and has gained momentum in recent years.

    The pilot was a success, and CALL has since become an essential and expanding resource for the department, funded by the City Council. The hours during which CALL responders (known as “navigators”) can be dispatched have been expanded, now covering 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. The team has also added a juvenile specialist.

    The program has helped build trust as residents discover that an officer with a gun and a badge won’t come to their house every time there’s a crisis. It’s popular with police as well. “They don’t want to see this go away,” Holloway says. “They’re not trained as well as the navigators in handling some of these situations.”

    The idea of sending social workers and other specialists in response to emergency calls gained traction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but also became controversial as it was framed as an alternative or even a way to “defund” the police. In practice, however, it’s proved to be a useful addition to police response.

    An analysis of nearly 16 million calls to 911 by the Vera Institute, a social justice group, found that less than 3 percent involved a violent crime. A couple of years back, the Council of State Governments Justice Center published a toolkit for communities interested in creating programs like the one supporting Chief Holloway’s department. The following year, it established a national commission to build on this work and identify emerging best practices. Holloway was asked to be a member.

    The commission released a report about its work in May. “Everybody came to listen and learn and to come up with common goals,” Holloway says. “You still need law enforcement out there to protect people,” he says, “but you need people to help those going through a crisis who can do better than law enforcement.”

    Getting the First Steps Right

    Denver implemented a co-response program in 2016 in which licensed clinicians went out on calls with police officers. In 2020, it launched Support Team Assisted Response (STAR), a mobile crisis team that operates in partnership with the Denver Police Department.

    There were some advantages to the fact that the co-response program was in place for several years before STAR was launched, says Andrew Dameron, director of emergency communications for the city and county of Denver. Early on, police were concerned that they were going on calls with “snowflakes” who were going to get hurt or killed, who would need their protection. “What they found was that when these clinicians were taking the lead, oftentimes they got a much better outcome,” Dameron says. “They began to understand the benefit of having that resource.”

    When STAR came, online 911 dispatchers needed to decide which calls would go to them, as the social workers would no longer be accompanied by law enforcement. Early on, there was only one STAR van, and no expectation that it could respond to every call that might be appropriate. As the program grew, so did the need to delineate the difference between a STAR call and a police call.

    The goal is to enshrine STAR as a fourth response option along with fire, police and EMS, says Dameron. For the most part, the lines between these are clear. Over time, dispatchers learned to sort out “police call” and “STAR call” nuances. This has been refined to include a “STAR-only” classification, meaning there aren’t extenuating circumstances that require police presence and the caller is willing to wait until social workers are available.

    Dameron and Holloway both recognize the value of sending responders who are plugged into local resources and know where to send someone who’s in crisis for help. “Particularly for a brand-new police officer, fresh out of the academy, the path of least resistance is to arrest that person and take them to jail,” says Dameron. “That’s not unique to Denver — that’s how our criminal justice system has been built.”

    Social workers are also in a better position to create a feedback loop that can help law enforcement and other local agencies identify where there are cracks or gaps in their systems.
    Two people wearing medical face masks and Portland Street Response t-shirts walking down a street with a homeless encampment.
    Portland Street Response (PSR) is a trauma-informed community response team embedded within the city’s Fire and Rescue Department.

    Under the Radar

    In Denver and St. Petersburg, the programs predated the protests that followed George Floyd’s death, as did those in other communities. To the extent that alternative response is becoming more common, it is pointing people to safety nets rather than fines and jails. “Some of the services were already there, we just didn’t know how to connect people to the services,” Holloway says.

    Tansy McNulty, founder of the nonprofit 1 Million Madly Motivated Moms, was also asked to be part the Council of State Governments commission. In December 2020, her group worked to create an online directory of community response teams. By 2021, they had identified 150. Today, The Right Response Directory includes contact information for more than 250 teams across the nation. The Denver and St. Petersburg programs are in the directory, but so are programs that aren’t integrated within police departments.

    McNulty’s intent is to inform community members of options other than calling the police. Directory users are advised to call 911 if a weapon is present or there is a threat of immediate harm.
    Two members of New York City's Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division (B-HEARD) in a New York City Fire Department vehicle, with a third member standing in front of it, all smiling at the camera.
    New York City's Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division (B-HEARD) is a partnership between the New York City Fire Department Emergency Medical Services and NYC Health + Hospitals, with oversight from the mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

    Barriers and Agreement

    The nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), founded in 2002, is a coalition of police, prosecutors, judges and others in law enforcement advocating for changes to criminal justice and drug policy. In 2020, it published a report outlining the process of creating a community responder project in partnership with the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank.

    “Once we had the foundational report out there, we started working with cities and seeing some common barriers,” says Amos Irwin, a program director at LEAP. Getting dispatching right was one of two “big” barriers, he says.

    “There’s a famous saying in dispatch centers,” says Irwin. “If you’ve seen one 911 call center, you’ve seen one call center, because they are all different.”

    LEAP teamed with CAP and the New York University Policing Project for another report covering three common models for integrating non-police response programs in 911 dispatch systems. One major issue was concern that a community responder program could open up a city to new forms of liability. LEAP published its research regarding that question in May.

    “It’s pretty clear that even with the wide variety of state laws, there does not seem to be any evidence that these programs are going to increase a city’s liability risk,” Irwin says. Actually, it could decrease risk because armed officers are not being sent to calls that don’t involve criminal activity.

    Irwin says that one of the satisfying things about working on community response is that, as Chief Holloway found, there’s agreement about its value.

    “You’ve got 1 million motivated moms, you’ve got police leaders, you’ve got police unions weighing in and saying we don’t want to go to these 911 calls anymore,” he says. “We got excited about the potential because everyone’s not on the same side on many of the other issues we work on.”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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