The Community Responder Model

The Community Responder Model – How Cities Can Send the Right Responder to Every 911 Call – PDF
Authors – Amos Irwin and Betsy Pearl
Created by the Center for American Progress – October 2020

Executive summary

Today, a significant portion of 911 calls are related to quality-of-life and other low priority incidents that may require a time-sensitive response but are better suited to civilian responders, rather than armed police officers. Some 911 calls may not require a time-sensitive response at all. Recent original analysis conducted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) examined 911 police calls for service from eight cities and found that 23 to 39 percent of calls were low priority or nonurgent, while only 18 to 34 percent of calls were life-threatening emergencies. While many 911 calls do merit an emergency police response, unnecessarily dispatching armed officers to calls where their presence is unnecessary is more than just an ineffective use of safety resources; it can also create substantially adverse outcomes for communities of color, individuals with behavioral health disorders and disabilities, and other groups who have been disproportionately affected by the American criminal justice system.

To improve outcomes for the community and reduce the need for police response, LEAP and CAP propose that cities establish a new branch of civilian first responders, known as “Community Responders.” As envisioned, Community Responders would be dispatched in response to two specific categories of calls for service that do not require police response. First, they could be dispatched to lower-risk 911 calls related to mental health, addiction, and homelessness. This report details several existing programs that send non-police responders to handle such issues, including the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon.

Second, Community Responders could handle calls unrelated to behavioral health needs, which might be classified as disturbances, suspicious persons, trespassing incidents, noise complaints, other quality-of-life concerns, and lower-risk neighborhood conflicts. These sorts of situations would benefit from the mediation skills and neighborhood experience that credible messengers—a type of outreach worker with a personal history of justice system involvement—already employ in violence prevention initiatives across the country.

Using 911 data from eight cities, this report estimates that between 33 and 68 percent of police calls for service could be handled without sending an armed officer to the scene; between 21 and 38 percent could be addressed by Community Responders; and an additional 13 to 33 percent could be dealt with administratively without sending an armed officer to the scene.

Leading departments are already demonstrating that police are not needed to respond to calls—including those for auto accidents without injury as well as minor larceny, theft, and burglary cases—where the primary purpose is to take reports for insurance companies. Law enforcement agencies can also filter out more false alarms and mistaken 911 calls to avoid dispatching officers unnecessarily. This report discusses the challenges and opportunities of a Community Responder approach and concludes with recommendations on how to successfully implement Community Responder programs in cities across the country—including the need to gather community input. Community

Responders are not a silver bullet, but particularly among communities where relationships with police have been damaged by generations of disproportionate enforcement, the model could play an important role in increasing safety, well-being, and trust.

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