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Trained civilians, not sworn police officers, could better respond to hundreds of 911 calls

As a Chicago police officer, I came to understand there are smart alternatives to sending armed police to calls where they aren’t needed.

“Police are on speed-dial for most of Chicago’s social problems,” writes retired Chicago Police Officer David Franco. “We spend entire shifts dealing with noncriminal matters.”
Sun-Times Media

As a young Chicago police officer, I once responded to a 911 “disturbance” call that turned out to be a bat in an apartment. I’m sure every other veteran patrol officer has a similar story.

So I was excited to see a brand-new report estimating that one to two thirds of all 911 police calls for service in big cities don’t need an armed police response — they could be resolved administratively or by trained civilian community responders. In fact, non-police crisis response has recently been proposed by several Chicago aldermen. This move is timely and crucial.

Instead of sending armed police to calls where they aren’t needed, it’s time we invest in community responders and build long-term solutions.

Police are on speed-dial for most of Chicago’s social problems. We spend entire shifts dealing with noncriminal matters from disturbance and suspicious person calls to noise complaints and fender-benders. Most of the criminal matters are low-level issues: trespassing, property damage, cell phones stolen from cars. Recent studies by the Vera Institute and the New York Times found that in several large cities, less than 2% of all 911 police calls for service related to serious violent crimes.

With so many low-level issues put on our shoulders, police cannot prioritize the serious crimes that our city desperately needs to address. Responding to quality-of-life issues and mental health crises not only takes officer time away from important cases, it also destroys community trust. When we “resolve” a minor situation using our default tool — arrest — community trust in police sinks even lower. Fewer people pick up the phone to dial 911, and fewer people respond when our investigators ring their doorbell.

In many cases, our presence can actually escalate a situation. When a person sees police lights and uniforms, they often become visibly agitated — which we saw up close in the tragic police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. last month in Philadelphia. Police presence has a particularly strong impact on people with an untreated mental illness, who are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than the general population.

This issue is personal. I investigated the tragic 2015 police killing of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones for the Chicago Police Board. I saw up close how the wrong moves by police escalated a young man’s mental health crisis into two needless shootings.

The good news is that other cities are paving the way forward with trained civilian community responders. In Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS program has been operating for 31 years. CAHOOTS dispatches de-escalation experts to 911 calls related to mental health, substance use and homelessness. Last year, the program handled 19% of all 911 police calls for service, and less than 1% of those calls required police backup. Olympia, Washington and Denver, Colorado recently have created similar programs. Denver’s program, called Support Team Assistance Response (STAR), has handled more than 350 calls without once having to call in police backup.

Chicago can be a national leader if we build on what we have in place. The city already has trained civilian teams available 24/7 to respond in-person to calls through our Department of Family and Support Services, and we have housing and mental health responders as well. We need to train teams that can be dispatched to appropriate 911 calls, and fund them accordingly. The right civilian teams could handle a quarter to a third of all police 911 calls, according to police who advised a new report by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the Center for American Progress.

In addition to taking calls off the police’s plate, trained civilian responders can prevent future calls. Every patrol officer knows that we respond to the same addresses and the same people over and over. Instead of sending an officer to put a Band-Aid on the issue for a day or two, we should send mental health and de-escalation experts, who are actually equipped to find long-term solutions. To reach people most effectively, we should employ peer responders who have been on the other side of these interactions — they truly understand these situations firsthand, so they bring unique patience and skill to the table.

When I was sworn in as a police officer in 1989, I gave an oath to serve and protect my community. I am still working to live up to that promise. Today, that means speaking out in support of trained civilian 911 responders to keep our city safe.

Officer David Franco (Ret.) served for 31 years with the Chicago Police Department. He is an adjunct criminal justice instructor at Wilbur Wright College. He is also a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials who speak from firsthand experience to improve the criminal justice system.

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