Ohio study: Most favor police responding to fewer non-violent emergencies

“What we heard from the community is there's an opportunity to actually bring some relief to the officers and what they have to do in the community."


By Eric Lagatta
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A majority of those who participated in a study commissioned by the City of Columbus believe that social service and mental health professionals could respond to many of the non-violent 911 calls routinely handled by police.

That conclusion was among the findings presented Tuesday night by a public-relations firm hired by the city to gauge public opinion on law enforcement and safety. The Saunders PR Group, a Columbus public relations consulting firm, spent weeks gathering feedback from community members through a series of virtual town halls, more than a dozen focus groups, and a community survey with nearly 4,000 participants.

The results were revealed during the latest "Reimagining Public Safety” virtual town hall hosted Tuesday night by Columbus City Council. Overwhelmingly, the firm reported, respondents favored investing in community resources that would alleviate the Columbus Division of Police of the burden of responding to every emergency, said Gayle Saunders, founder and CEO of the Saunders PR Group.

"There's not a message of anti-policing,” Saunders said during the virtual forum. “What we heard from the community is there's an opportunity to actually bring some relief to the officers and what they have to do in the community."

[READ: How police crisis clinicians and LEOs can work together to better serve a community's needs]

Among the firm’s findings are that a majority of respondents believe there are certain non-violent situations that could be handled by trained crisis professionals either alone or accompanied by police.

According to the results, 52% of respondents said wellness checks and missing person reports were among the calls that both police and trained crisis professionals could handle together. Mental health crises and non-weapon suicide threats are emergencies that 65% of respondents didn't believe required a police response at all, while 73% felt that way about crises involving homeless people.

Additionally, a majority of those who participated in the study expressed support for more investment directed at violence prevention efforts and access to public housing and healthcare services.

The Saunders Group's results come as city officials face mounting public pressure to address police reform in the wake of last summer's racial injustice protests. Following the May 25 death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee on Floyd's neck, scores of Columbus residents have advocated that police spending be diverted into social programs.

City Council President Shannon Hardin had previously announced that he would use the city's operating budget to stop all new officer hiring until a new chief was seated and an audit of past public safety hiring practices was completed.

However, Hardin and four other council members unsuccessfully attempted to delay a June police recruit class and transfer the $2.5 million to pay for it toward $10 million being set aside to create a "Reimagining Public Safety" fund.

Instead, when Hardin failed to get the six "supermajority" votes needed for the "emergency" budget amendment to pass, the $970.3 million general fund operating budget City Council adopted on Monday included the reinstated funds to the police budget.

The city initiatives that the $2.5 million was to be diverted to help fund — including new anti-violence programs, youth workforce development, and medical training for officers now required by city code to offer first aid to police use-of-force victims — will now come from other means and be combined with the $7.5 million originally set aside to create the total $10 million fund.

During Tuesday's hearing, Hardin lauded the work of the Saunders Group, whose founder Gayle Saunders is a former city Department of Public Safety deputy director who has also worked in communications at Nationwide, Ohio State University and Columbus City Schools.

Hardin said the firm's findings will serve as a blueprint for city leaders and the community as they move forward with addressing police reform and safety. The complete report will be made available to the public at www.columbus.gov/reimaginesafety.

“We want you to be part of the process, we need to hear from you,” Hardin said, addressing the public. “This is our opportunity, this is our chance to move our city forward.”

(c)2021 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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