By J. K. Schmid
Special to the AFRO

A new study finds that two thirds of all police calls for service may never have warranted the response of an armed officer.

A recent report published by Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and Center for American Progress (CAP) comes at a time when issues of police accountability, police brutality and ballooning police budgets have literally been taken to the streets as part of a national protest movement.

“Using 911 data from eight cities, this report estimates that between 33% and 68% of police calls for service could be handled without sending an armed officer to the scene,” the report read. “Between 21% and 38% could be addressed by Community Responders, and an additional 13% to 33% could be dealt with administratively without sending an armed officer to the scene.”

The eight cities included in the study were Detroit, Michigan; Hartford, Connecticut; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New Orleans, Louisiana; Portland, Oregon; Richmond, California; Seattle, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona.

The LEAP report suggests a two-tiered workload for Community Responders (CRs), starting with behavioral health issues of mental health, addiction and homelessness in the first tier and assigning “disturbances” of trespassing, suspicious persons and noise complaints or quality of life issues, to the second tier.

“To improve outcomes for the community and reduce the need for police response, LEAP and CAP propose that cities establish a new branch of civilian first responders, known as ‘Community Responders,’” the report concludes. “As envisioned, Community Responders would be dispatched in response to two specific categories of calls for service that do not require police response.”

“Having run Baltimore City’s 911 and police dispatch center, I know that armed officers are not the right responders for many low-level calls,” said Major Michael Hilliard (Ret.), a LEAP speaker and former East Baltimore Baltimore Police Department patrolman, internal affairs detective and citizens’ patrol organizer. “I believe that by sending civilian Community Responders to appropriate calls, we can dispatch the right person to these calls resolving their causes, decrease the number of 911 calls police respond to, reduce negative police-community interactions, and restore our community’s trust that the police are focused on the greatest threats to public safety.”

After a $22 million BPD cut in June, Commissioner Michael Harrision still has over half a billion dollars to fund a department that is not keeping pace with Baltimore’s violent crime. 2019 ended with 348 Baltimore murders, and Baltimore recently hit 300 murders. This will be the sixth consecutive year where Baltimore counts more than 300 murders.

“Despite our lack of training to deal with most societal issues, police are currently tasked with addressing almost every problem in our communities, from poverty to mental health issues and substance use,” Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), former head of training for the Baltimore Police Department and executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership said. “We need police to deal with certain violent situations and serious crimes. But most situations that lead to a 911 call would be better dealt with by civilian responders who have the right tools to deal with the situation at hand and can prevent the situation from escalating.”

With consensus among police, and daily anecdotes from communities and community members across the country, the AFRO asked how does this research not also conclude with defunding the police?

“It’s a polarizing phrase,” Amos Irvin, program director, LEAP, told the AFRO. “What our police members have recognized is that this benefits the police, as much as it benefits the community. Every officer can tell you a story about a police call that went on, that they thought ‘I can’t believe that police are the ones sent to these calls…’ Every officer can tell you a story about situations that have fallen on the shoulders of police that should not, simply because they are the only ones who are sent to deal with this wide range of issues when people call 911. And no officer actually thinks that that is the way it should be.”

So, with a cool response to “Defund the Police,” the AFRO went through the report with Mr. Irvin as guide. The next question being where is Baltimore’s 911 data?

“I live in Baltimore, and our executive director served as the head of training for the Baltimore Police Department,” Irvin said. “We would have loved to include Baltimore, and we certainly plan to try and get help with moving forward with a program like this in Baltimore, but unfortunately, Baltimore is one of the cities that provides excellent public transparency, however, the underlying data does not show 911 calls only. It mixes together 911 calls and officer initiated calls.”

One of the research’s assumptions is that police calling into dispatch understand the merit of dispatching additional police. Recommendations in the report are focused on community solicitations for service, that may or may not demand an armed police response.

“I’m just literally now with the department and Compstat and they don’t have the information,” Irvin said.

Irvin said that the eight cities chosen for research had the best publicly available data.

Examples of the report’s Community Responders model are CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) of Eugene, Ore., Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) of Denver, Colo., and CRU (Crisis Response Unit) of Olympia, Wash.

Setting these programs apart from many others is the coding and dispatch of calls directly from 911 and, in addition to medical practitioners, what the report terms “credible messengers,” or individuals with strong ties to the community. Oftentimes these individuals have a personal history of overcoming violence or run-ins with the law, who are able to connect to community residents based on their shared background and experiences.

A similar program, if incomplete by LEAP and CAP’s metrics, is Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. (BCRI). BCRI operates its own Here2Help hotline that is not tied into 911 dispatch and provides mental health specialists, social workers and nurses.

While the next step is to take the report on the road to precincts across the country and make the case for the Community Responders model, LEAP is not as yet working towards implementation at this moment.

“One of the things that we have to do first, is we have to talk about safety from the perspective of community health and safety,” Ret. Lieutenant Diane Goldstein, chair LEAP told the AFRO.  Goldstein is a former patrol officer, special investigations unit sergeant and division commander of the Redondo Beach Police Department. “Because we know that there’s plenty of evidence of overfunding the criminal justice system, the backend process of it. And we’ve been doing this since Ronald Reagan and California closed down mental health clinics. The vision of safety has to be community-led. Because every community is different, you can’t develop problems on a national model of scale that’s going to fit Baltimore or fit Redondo Beach. It’s two different communities and two different things.”

LEAP’s full report can be read here and a full list of calls researched can be found here.