Columbus City Council has started its latest series of virtual town halls for its ‘Reimagining Public Safety’ initiative. Wednesday night’s discussion was about establishing an alternative public safety crisis response. The discussion explored other options for responding to certain types of 911 calls.
“For decades we’ve asked law enforcement to handle mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, violent crime, property damage, and more. And that’s a lot for one profession and one person to handle,” said Shannon Hardin, President of Columbus City Council. “911 call data reveals that much of what our officers are asked to deal with are problems they may not have the exact tools to solve.”
Hardin hosted the discussion. Representatives from the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and Center for American Progress also participated.
“Everyone here in attendance recognizes that calls for service that actually necessitate a firearm are really the exception and not the rule,” said Tom Thompson.
Thompson is a retired assistant police chief from the Miamisburg Police Department. He’s now part of LEAP and is Network Executive Director of Police for the Kettering Health Network.
“The fact of the matter is an eight hour mental health first aid class or the 40-hour CIT class does not adequately equip our officers to intervene in a mental health crisis,” he said. “If you need any confirmation from anything I’m saying I just recommend you ask any officer and they’ll confirm that.”
Homelessness, wellness checks, civil issues and mental health calls were all types of calls discussed on Wednesday. City Council is looking at the possibility of having others, besides police, respond to some of those calls in Columbus.
“This is the very beginning of this conversation here in Columbus and we know there’s a lot of education that’ll have to happen with the community, with council members, with leadership, with the police, as we go down this road,” said Hardin.
A handful of cities around the country have specialized teams for this. In some cases, those teams are made up of mental health professionals and EMTs. Thompson says he realizes some might have safety concerns if officers are not responding. He says in cities where these programs are established, there have not been issues and backup from officers can be called. He also says if Columbus were to introduce a program like this, pushback from police should be expected.
“I think they’re going to find out like other things that have come along there’s always a lot of angst to start with but they end up finding out it is much easier,” he said. “I guarantee and I’ll be very transparent that behind closed doors, every officer is going to calls frequently where they’re looking at each other saying we shouldn’t be taking this call, we have no business being on this call, and those are the calls we’re talking about right here.”
Having specialized teams ultimately allows police officers to focus more on extra patrols and building relationships in the community, according to Thompson. Five more town halls are scheduled. The next one is happening at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. The topic is investing in violence prevention.