COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Eight months after Columbus City Council announced it would aside money to pilot a nonpolice emergency response program, city leaders have yet to take the first steps toward implementing that program.
From deploying mobile response teams of crisis-trained officers and mental health clinicians to embedding social workers in 911 call centers, the city has worked for years to build a portfolio of alternative response teams for mental health and substance use-related calls. But a program proposed for years by community advocates – and funded for the first time this summer in the city’s operating budget – has not gotten off the ground.
In February, council said it would allocate $1.2 million to pilot a nonpolice response program for “nonviolent, low-acuity” calls for service, including mental health crises. It follows similar programs in other cities, including Cincinnati and Dayton. Unlike the city’s existing alternative crisis response programs, which pair social workers and medical providers with officers or dispatchers, the new unit would be the city’s first public safety program without police.
When announcing the pilot program, Council President Shannon Hardin said the city – and society at large – has become “too reliant” on officers for all emergencies.
But about eight months on, at a city council meeting Tuesday to discuss the progress and future of alternative crisis response programs, Hardin and other city leaders could only speculate how the city might begin implementing that pilot.
That’s a frustrating spot to be in, said Steve David with the Columbus Safety Collective.
“I’m seeing a lack of that political will to make the nonpolice program happen right now,” David told NBC4.
The Columbus Safety Collective has led the initiative to establish a city-run, nonpolice crisis response program since 2020, when the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police opened a door for more public discussion on rethinking the way municipalities respond to emergencies. The collective began hosting forums, working with city officials and engaging community members in conversations about alternatives to calling the police.
The city has also done its own research in residents’ receptivity to nonpolice and alternative crisis response programs. A city-commissioned survey of nearly 4,000 residents found that about 80% said they would feel at least somewhat comfortable with nonpolice units responding to mental health crises, suicide attempts or threats, homelessness-related calls and general behavioral issues.
Since 2020, the city has launched several programs aimed at diverting calls away from typical police and fire responses, when possible.
The Right Response Unit (RRU), which first piloted in 2021, embeds a social worker in the 911 call center to de-escalate mental health crises over the phone. The Mobile Crisis Response Unit (MCR), piloted in 2018, has six duos of officers and mental health clinicians who respond to calls related to mental health and substance use. And since 2017, the Rapid Response Emergency and Addiction Crisis Team (RREACT) focuses both on harm reduction, through distributing fentanyl test strips and naloxone, and crisis aftercare, by connecting people with substance use treatment after overdoses.
Each program has boasted success, leaders and team members testified Tuesday. The RRU has responded to about 3,000 calls for service in 2023 – up from 2,300 in 2022 – and has resolved about 29% of calls without dispatching police, according to Anita Clark, assistant health commissioner of Columbus Public Health. About 15% of the city’s 23,000 annual mental-health-related 911 calls are responded to by an MCR team, testified Columbus Police Sgt. Matt Harris, including more than 1,300 this year.
After more than an hour of presentations about the alternative response programs Tuesday evening, Hardin asked public safety and public health leaders what the first steps toward piloting a nonpolice response program might look like.
Kate Pishotti, director of the Department of Public Safety, passed the question off to Clark, saying any nonpolice response would likely be run by clinicians and not the public safety department. Clark said any pilot would need robust data to support its expansion, but she also noted that a shortage of social workers and health care providers to staff the pilot may complicate things.
Since January, Netcare Access has operated its own nonpolice response program throughout Franklin County. Five mobile response teams – staffed by a mental health clinician and a peer supporter – operate in a manner similar to what Columbus Safety Collective has recommended.
The program has shown “really, really promising results,” said Brian Stroh, CEO and medical director of Netcare. Up to 87% of calls are resolved over the phone, he said – but he noted that a shortage of licensed mental health clinicians is an ongoing challenge to scaling up the program’s hours.
David testified at council that while Netcare’s program is a valuable resource, the community has asked for specific things no current response team provides. That includes moving away from relying too heavily on licensed medical professionals at the expense of recruiting community members, he said.
“The reality is, the people who do this work the best are the folks that are already doing it in informal ways in their neighborhoods,” David told NBC4. “These are the people that have the cultural credibility and lexicon to do it in a fluid manner that’s responsive to their neighbors, and they’re already diffusing conflicts, they are de-escalating people.”
Hardin reiterated the city’s intent to move forward with the nonpolice response unit pilot on Tuesday night – an intent he repeatedly said was personal, too.
That should begin with spending the $1.2 million, David said.
A city council spokesperson directed questions about budgeting and planning the alternative crisis response programs, including the nonpolice pilot program, to the Office of Violence Prevention. That office was not available for comment by the time of publication.