Ohio city exploring new response to non-violent 911 calls
A city council member estimated that 5-10% of 911 calls could be diverted from police
By Doug Livingston
Akron Beacon Journal
AKRON — Instead of dispatching armed police officers, Akron officials are exploring the possibility of a civilian response to 911 calls that involve non-violent disputes, mental health crises and more.
City Council's Reimagining Public Safety Committee dedicated an hour last week to the idea that trained social service and mental health care workers — working with police or on their own — could mediate better outcomes while freeing up officers to focus limited time and resources on priority calls and criminal investigations.
While nothing formal has been proposed, the head of the police union says someone will get hurt with this "warm and fuzzy way to defund the police." Proponents argue that culturally competent civilians with ties to the community could serve as "credible messengers" who help to break the cycle of addiction and homelessness. And other cities have been doing this for months or even decades with no tragic outcomes.
Meanwhile, the mayor is working privately with judges and community health professionals "to build and execute a plan" for "alternative responses to mental health calls."
Top city administrators have spent "hundreds of hours" since January studying best practices and meeting privately with stakeholders on the creation of a "Mobile Crisis Team."
"We are confident that the right leaders are engaged to make the Mobile Crisis Team a reality," Akron Safety Director Charles Brown said in an email response to the Akron Beacon Journal. Mayor Dan Horrigan and Police Chief Steve Mylett did not agree to an interview.
"I believe we are close to completing a framework to complete the task Mayor Horrigan set before us: to safely, appropriately and more effectively respond to Akron residents during emergency calls, based on the mental health needs of those involved," Brown said.
Panel discusses community responder model
The community responder conversation is about "two things," said Councilman Shammas Malik, "having the best response possible for each call" and relieving an overreliance on police for all of society's problems. Malik estimated that 5-10% of 911 calls could be taken out of the hands of police, which "frees up those officers to work on gun violence, to work on other community priorities."
In agreement was a panel of experts invited to speak to the council committee, including two progressive researchers and a former police chief for hospitals in Dayton, which is starting Ohio's first community responder program in the next six months.
The top concern from the police union and council members, including a member with decades of experience as a mental health service administrator, is guaranteeing the safety of the community responders, and the residents involved in the disputes they handle.
"We're really strong with crisis-intervention training in Summit County," At-Large Councilwoman Linda Omobien said, applauding local law enforcement for embracing de-escalation techniques.
But as a former children's services caseworker, Omobien recalled how plainclothes police would escort her on confrontational home visits to take custody of children.
"My only concern [with a community responder program] is that it only takes one major situation to occur where there's a problem, and then we do hindsight," she said.
"You're absolutely right," said Amos Irwin, one of the researchers. "It's so important for us to do everything we can to avoid that disaster scenario that would blow up on the news."
Few 911 calls are high-priority
Irwin and Betsy Pearl, who also joined the virtual council meeting via Zoom, co-authored a 2020 study of 911 calls in eight major American cities. Published for the Center for American Progress and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), the study categorized 23-39% of 911 calls as "low priority or non-urgent" and 18-34% as life-threatening. Many in between involved little more than writing reports for insurance claims.
Closer to home, LEAP was commissioned last year by the city of Dayton to examine the potential for a community responder program.
Irwin and Pearl examined the city's 133,160 911 calls in 2019, finding that 38,524 calls (29% of the total) resulted in officers filling out accident, theft or property damage reports, often because an insurance company requires them. Another 30,781 calls (23% of the total) were "low-risk" mental health and social service issues often rooted in addiction, homelessness or minor disputes.
That's more than half of all calls.
Former law enforcement officials helped review the calls to determine whether they warranted a trained mediator, armed officer or both. Irwin and Pearl concluded that community responders could have handled 15,752 calls for mental health issues and another 14,381 calls involving landlord-tenant, neighbor, juvenile or other disputes.
That's 23% of all the 911 calls, not counting the other 29% of calls for property damage or theft. Another 23% appeared to be "medium risk" calls like domestic disputes where, after assessing the threat level, an officer could have handed them off to licensed counselors or mediators.
Only 20% of all calls were classified as "high-risk police issues."
As criminal and racial justice demonstrations formed last year, the Akron Devil Strip analyzed a sampling of 17,820 police calls from July 2019. The monthly publication found only 2,466 (13.8% of the total) resulting in a police report. Less than 90 of those reports included violent criminal charges, including rape, robbery, assault, intimidation and arson.
Calls for service, including citizen-initiated 911 calls and police responding directly to issues, fell from a 10-year high of 220,479 in 2016 to 149,805 last year, a 32% decline. The annual volume of calls was dropping even before cratering during the pandemic. In that time, comprehensive annual financial reports show the overall police budget falling 9% from $54.6 million in 2016 to $49.6 million in 2020.
'Risk is still there'
Social work is not without risk. Next month marks the 20th anniversary of a Columbus caseworker who asked to be assigned to a tough neighborhood and was stabbed to death by a father who had lost custody of his children.
"That risk is still there," Clay Cozart, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Akron, told the Beacon Journal after watching the video of the council discussion.
Cozart noted a more recent example of a social worker killed during a home visit. "And who's liable if a social worker is injured, or a neighbor or a relative?" he asked.
Joining Irwin and Pearl, former Miamisburg Assistant Chief Thomas Thompson, who also led about 170 officers as the former chief of police for the Kettering Health Network, told council that a review of programs across America found no civilian responder was hurt or killed. Instead, they found that community responders handled the situation without asking for help from the police about 99% of the time.
"As a career law enforcement guy, this was my No. 1 concern: Isn't it going to be too dangerous?" he said. "As law enforcement officers, we're trained that every scenario we walk into, you could be on the precipice of death or something horrible happening. So, this was my biggest hurdle to get around."
Cozart said the union supports a non-uniformed approach to some situations. The sight of an armed officer, especially in disproportionately policed neighborhoods, can inadvertently incite confrontation, he and the panelists agreed.
But the police union president would rather the city expand crisis-intervention training instead of deploying unarmed civilians. "This is not something that politicians should push upon civilians," he said.
Thompson said the 40 hours of crisis-intervention and eight hours of mental health training most officers get is not enough. On the six hospital campuses his officers patrolled, he watched "dozens and dozens and dozens" of times as health professionals with mental health degrees achieved better outcomes than officers with a few days of training.
"And if you need any confirmation of what I'm telling you, if you asked an officer and they were honest with you, they'd tell you we're not equipped," he said.
Cultural competency is key
To minimize risk, the panelists said 911 call-takers and the dispatchers who read their real-time notes must be culturally competent and trained to assess threat levels.
"The cultural competency training is incredibly important," Irwin told Akron council. "I don't think that anyone on here will be surprised to hear that you could have two people call up the same dispatch center, the same dispatcher, with the same exact comment, and based on how that person's voice sounds or the neighborhood that they're calling from, they're going to get a different perception from that call taker about the urgency or the danger involved in the call."
Cultural competency and diversity is also critical for the responders, Thompson added. That goes for police, too, he said.
"Police have some way to go on achieving cultural competency, as well as hiring and retaining officers that mirror the demographics and lived experiences of the neighborhoods they serve," he said. "As a whole, we're just not there yet. And that's just the truth."
Defunding or supporting the police?
A spokesperson for the mayor said it would be premature to discuss how any iteration of a community responder program would be funded — either separately or from the police budget.
Akron may have to negotiate such a program.
"Are you taking away a bargaining unit worker and giving it away to civilians at a cheaper cost?" Cozart asked. "It's just a hidden way to defund the police."
Cities have funded community responder programs in various ways.
In Olympia, Washington, a city with about one-quarter the population of Akron, voters passed a levy in 2017 to launch a $500,000 a year Crisis Response Unit (CRU). The unit is housed in the local police department but takes most of its calls for service from a separate phone line. CRU responders call for police backup about 1% of the time, the researchers said.
Denver launched its Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program last June and, according to LEAP, has not summoned police to help with any of the calls its civilian responders have taken.
And the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program has been in operation in Eugene, Oregon, since 1989. For more than 30 years, hippies and cops have been working together to serve the public.
In 2019, the program diverted 5-8% of 911 calls from the Eugene Police Department. Demand for the program, which mostly helps intoxicated, mentally ill or disoriented individuals, has nearly doubled in the past five years. In 2018, the program drew $798,000 from the police budget, according to data from the city of Eugene's website.
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