Durham launches unarmed 911 emergency response team


Durham is launching a new crisis response team called HEART, which stands for Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams, to respond with unarmed professionals to behavioral and mental <a class=health crises.” title=”Durham is launching a new crisis response team called HEART, which stands for Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams, to respond with unarmed professionals to behavioral and mental health crises.” loading=”lazy”/>

Durham is launching a new crisis response team called HEART, which stands for Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams, to respond with unarmed professionals to behavioral and mental health crises.

City of Durham

Durham launched a new crisis response initiative this week that could change the way residents think about calling 911 in an emergency.

Holistic Empathic Assistance Response Teams (HEART) will use trained mental health professionals in the 911 center and on field calls when people are experiencing non-violent behavioral and mental health crises.

HEART, which falls under the city’s new Community Safety Department, includes four pilot programs, three of which are currently underway.

Community Response Team

Starting Wednesday, HEART began dispatching three-person civilian teams, instead of armed police, to certain nonviolent 911 calls, the city said in a news release.

Each team has a mental health clinician, a peer support specialist and an emergency medical technician trained to work with people in crisis and provide a “caring handoff” to service providers, the city said.

Responders will be trained in de-escalation and situational awareness.

This pilot will primarily serve an area visible on an online map consisting of the city centre, areas south and east of the city center and large parts of northeast Durham. The service area also includes portions of Duke University’s East Campus.

This service area, according to the city, was selected based on the high volume of “eligible” emergency calls located there.

“Our hope,” Community Safety Director Ryan Smith said in a press release, “is that this will reduce the number of repeat calls to 911 for the same unmet needs, which will increase our forces’ ability to order, emergency services and 911 calls. to be able to respond to higher priority service calls.

The Community Safety Department selected the types of eligible 911 calls after consulting with other first responders and reviewing local call data. The city cited “evidence from other cities with a history of safely dispatching unarmed responders,” such as Denver, San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon.

HEART pilot programs will not respond to calls involving weapons or violence. The locations of the teams in the field will be monitored by the emergency dispatch services, and they will be able to contact law enforcement by radio, if necessary.

Crisis call diversion

The city says Durham will be the first in the state to launch the pilot project, which will embed mental health clinicians within the Durham Emergency Communications Center to connect 911 callers to mental health professionals in the event emergency throughout the city.

“Evidence from other communities that have started similar programs gives me confidence that alternative responders can reduce some of the current heavy call load of our police officers, which means we can free up those police officers to focus on violent crime – the area where we need it. the most,” City Manager Wanda Page said in the press release.

Navigation of care

In the third pilot this week, people who meet with HEART responders will receive a follow-up meeting within 48 hours in person or by phone to connect them with mental and behavioral health care.

The pilots will initially operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and will expand to evenings and weekends later this summer.

“While we are the first in our state to place mental health professionals in our 911 center and send unarmed response teams to mental health calls, we are not the first in the country,” said Smith said in the statement. “Other cities are already showing the promise of these new approaches to public safety, and it gives us confidence that these pilots can help us do an even better job of caring for our neighbors in crisis in ways that are safe for all people. involved.”

A fourth pilot program slated to launch later this summer, called Co-Response, will send mental health professionals alongside police officers in situations of greater security risk.

Similar programs in the Triangle include the Chapel Hill Crisis Unit, a 24-hour co-response team that supports city police on crisis calls, as well as Raleigh’s ACORNS team (Addressing Crises through Outreach, Referrals, Networking, and Service), which works the same way.

Durham allocated $4 million to create the Community Safety Service with 15 full-time positions. Its role is to “enhance public safety through community-centered prevention and response approaches as alternatives to policing and the criminal justice system,” according to the city budget.

More funding needed, campaigners say

Durham Beyond Policing, an activist group for police accountability, welcomed the launch of HEART and credited years of activism and advocacy work in building support for state-funded programs like these. this.

In a statement posted to its Instagram page, however, the group said HEART should have been better funded by the city.

“Elected officials will say this is just the pilot year,” the post said. “But the limited staff reduces the geographic reach that unarmed community response pilots might have the capacity to deal with, and puts unfair pressure on these important first responders during a pandemic, mental health crisis and economic downturn where Durham residents are demanding skilled care and the resources we need to live.

More funding for pilots with greater reach in the city “would have been well justified by the widespread enthusiasm [for the programs] across Durham City and county residents,” the group said.

Residents of Durham can keep up to date with the HEART pilot programs through monthly reports that will be posted on the department’s website. The city is expected to release a first report examining the program’s early results in August.

The city has made information about HEART and frequently asked questions available on the city’s website.

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Aaron Sánchez-Guerra is a breaking news reporter for The News & Observer and previously covered business and real estate for the newspaper. His experience includes reporting for WLRN Public Media in Miami and as a freelance journalist in Raleigh and Charlotte covering Latin American communities. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, a native Spanish speaker, and was born in Mexico. You can follow his work on Twitter at @aaronsguerra.


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