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Columbus' 'Right Response' Program Connects 911 Callers With Needed Services

Columbus Police vehicles outside the division headquarters.
David Holm

Each week thousands of calls come into Columbus’ 911 dispatch center. Not every one of them ends with a person in uniform responding to the scene. But for those that do, the range of options has—for a long time—boiled down to police, fire or EMS. But that’s changing.

For the past few months, Columbus has placed a social worker in the 911-dispatch unit to help triage calls for service. At the surface level, the program aims to divert calls away from police, but in a broader sense, the initiative is meant to better diagnose what callers really need and to de-escalate volatile situations before first responders arrive.

One of those social workers is Alverta Muhammad with Columbus Public Health. When she heard about the right response pilot, Muhammad jumped at the chance to join.

“I was like oh, you guys are doing this? This is so awesome, and then when it actually came to fruition, my section chief said hey Alverta we have this thing coming and I was like yes, yes, yes,” Muhammad said with a laugh.

As a social worker, she brings a different set of expertise to the phone call, and a different set of connections. Her experience working with people in crisis helps her effectively talk down the person on the other end of the line. And when it comes to mental health or treatment services, she often knows the name of the person she should call, not just the name of the agency.

In those cases where police do have to respond, Muhammad sees her role as a kind of translator—helping officers better understand the person they’re engaging with, and helping the caller safely navigate an interaction they probably don’t want.

“Literally we are just here to help you and support you during one of the worst times of your life,” Muhammad explains. “Because if you’ve got to call 911, it's probably one of the most scariest or worst times that you have. So we want to make sure that we support you and send the right response and send it in a way that makes sense for you that you’re ok with.”

Initial data from the pilot program was released in late July and while it’s limited in scope, the results are promising. More than 60% of calls didn’t require an immediate police or fire response, and almost half were resolved without any police or fire response at all. In its latest budget, city council plowed 1$0 million into police reform, including earmarking $7.5 million for alternative response efforts. But because this program uses existing personnel, it’s effectively cost-neutral.

Columbus Fire Captain Matt Parrish said the rank and file aren’t feeling the program’s impact yet, but he’s confident they will, because every first responder has a shared experience.

“They weren’t the right resource when they got there,” Parrish describes. “They’re going to come, they’re going to try to solve whatever that problem is because they were the only thing available. So I think conceptually, there’s a lot of buy-in for it because they’ve recognized that need for years.”

He notes Columbus Fire responds to about 500 calls a day. If the program can make a meaningful dent in that, it won’t take long for staff to feel it.

His counterpart with the police, Columbus Police Commander Dennis Jeffrey, believes the program’s ability to screen calls and redirect people to the services they actually need, is the missing piece in improving response.

“Even with the reform movement, the reimagining policing and we want to take police out of the equation, it’s just really been honestly who’s going to do that?” Jeffrey said. “So I think what this project is going to do is going to open up more doors for other organizations to provide those services. So even if the officers do go, they can pass that off appropriately and have the knowledge that this person is going to get the help they need after they leave.”

In its initial run, the right response pilot ran on weekdays from noon to 4 p.m., but going forward city officials plan to double its footprint, running from noon to 8 p.m. It’s still technically a pilot, but city officials expect the program to continue.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.