COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – After more than two years of research, community engagement and negotiation, Columbus is poised to try a different approach to handling some emergency calls – one that doesn’t involve law enforcement at all.

A proposed amendment to Columbus’ 2023 operating budget sets aside $1.2 million to pilot a nonpolice response program for “nonviolent, low-acuity” calls for service, like calls for mental health emergencies, substance use-related issues and unsheltered people needing help. It’s a program years in the making by the city and community activists who have sought alternatives to calling the police for situations where police presence may escalate tensions – or cause harm.

When announcing the amendment Monday, City Council President Shannon Hardin said Columbus needs a “health-first safety response program.”

“Both locally and nationally, we’ve become too reliant on police officers to solve all of our society’s problems,” Hardin said. “Expecting law enforcement to answer every call on every issue from homelessness to mental health and addiction is too much to ask.” 

The nonpolice response fund is in addition to the $3.5 million Mayor Andrew Ginther allotted to the city’s existing alternative crisis response programs, including the Right Response Unit and the mobile crisis response unit, which pair paramedics and social workers with police to handle mental health and addiction crises. It would be the city’s first emergency response program that, as the name suggests, doesn’t include police – something that Steve David with the Columbus Safety Collective said makes a significant difference.

“This is this redirecting of what our policies are and how we should be dealing with social ills, and this fundamental shift away from the criminal legal system as the way to solve all of our problems that we see in neighborhoods,” David said. 

The Columbus Safety Collective has led the initiative to establish a city-run, nonpolice crisis response program since 2020, when David said the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police opened a door for more public discussion on rethinking the way municipalities respond to emergencies. Formed on the principles of social justice, anti-racism and compassionate care, Columbus Safety Collective began hosting forums, working with city officials and engaging community members in conversations about alternatives to calling the police.

Over the years, many community members — particularly Black residents — have shared personal stories of dangerous encounters with police, David said. That includes Columbus Safety Collective’s Chana Wiley, who shared at a collective forum that her brother, Jaron Thomas, died in police custody while having a mental health crisis. 

Of nearly 4,000 residents who responded to a city-commissioned survey, 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. Some examples respondents gave for instances in which a nonpolice crisis response would be useful included wellness checks, needle pickup and “general nonviolent behavior.”

Even with general support for police alternatives, about half of survey respondents said they would call 911 if witnessing a mental health emergency – which is why David said the collective has advocated for the program to fall within the city’s overall emergency response system.

“If you’re talking about scale and being able to affect the most number of people, we want to build it into the existing system, a system that people know,” David said. “So, the key thing here is to design it in a way that people can trust it.”

Ahead of Ginther’s initial budget proposal at the end of 2022, Columbus Safety Collective released what it called a blueprint for crisis intervention, outlining a recommended program and budget for the city to pilot a nonpolice response unit. An essential component to the collective’s model is enlisting community members in the rollout, particularly those who have experienced similar crises to the ones the unit would respond to.

As opposed to the city’s current alternative response models, the collective envisions a response unit made up of a clinician and someone trained in crisis response – not necessarily a social worker or other licensed professional. A licensed social worker himself, David said attaining a license is an expensive, years-long process often inaccessible to working and low-income people. The licensing exam, he said, is geared toward white, middle-class test-takers, which funnels Black people and other marginalized communities out of the profession.

According to an internal analysis of exam scores by the Association of Social Work Boards, less than 36% of Black Ohioans passed social work licensing exams on their first attempt from 2011 to 2021, while more than 78% of white test-takers passed. Removing the barrier of licensure, David said, means the city can recruit more of the community in its own management and care.

“Community members are already the first responders. When something happens, your neighbor is there first, and then police or an EMT shows up,” David said. “Just like anyone can take a civil service exam and become a cop or firefighter, anyone who wants to serve their neighborhood should be able to get paid training to become a community crisis worker.”

The collective’s crisis intervention blueprint lays out a $10 million budget to pilot a nonpolice response program – several times more than the $1.2 million allotted. But David said for the collective, any amount of funds dedicated solely to a non-police alternative is a welcome step in the right direction.

A spokesperson for Ginther’s office would not confirm whether Ginther plans to approve the amendment but said in an email that the mayor and city council are “closely aligned on the most important issues facing our residents.” 

Columbus Safety Collective’s work is far from finished, David said. Now, it will work with the city to ensure its program recommendations are part of the nonpolice response unit pilot. The collective will also advocate for permanent program funding – and for some of that money to come from the police’s $371 million budget.

“When we think about how people are going to know that this is going to be something they can use and trust and it’s going to be at scale – so you could call 911, ask for this team and know that you’ll get it – that’s only going to come through a readjustment of our policy priorities by how we budget,” David said.

City council will approve the nonpolice unit fund and other budget amendments at its next meeting Feb. 13, after which the amendments will go to the mayor’s desk.