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Program offering social workers before police during crisis 911 calls is eying growth in 2023

Scott Rodgerson

Columbus officials working on the city’s fledgling program promoting alternative responses to crisis 911 calls, said they're creating a blueprint for public safety responses that rely less on police. But, for it to be as effective as possible, it needs to scale up next year, which will mean more dedicated funding.

Columbus City Council members Shannon Hardin and Emmanuel Remy hosted a public safety committee meeting about the program Tuesday, where they heard stats about the work done through the alternative programs.

One of the main elements of the city’s effort to adjust how it handles crisis 911 calls is the Right Response Unit, which was walked out as a pilot program in summer 2021.

Among other resources, the program uses social workers to de-escalate situations and send appropriate help in a crisis. It helps free up police for other types of work, avoids arrests and connects people to mental health services.

Social worker Steven David with the Columbus Safety Collective said the program is meeting a desire residents have for an alternative option to police.

"It seems that everyone we talked to has this same story of something happening on their block, wanting someone to call but holding deep reservations about involving police because of the risk of harm and contact with the criminal legal system," he said

But, he said, it could go further. He said the collective is calling on city council to spend $10 million supporting the program in 2023.

The city is spending between $4 million and $5 million on it now.

"We have this opportunity to rebuild our public safety infrastructure in a way that lifts up our communities and breaks the pipeline that funnels our black poor and disabled neighbors into the criminal legal system. We can create a system that's based on health, anti-racist values and a bold vision of the future that people can trust,” David said.

Hardin and Remy said they wanted to hear from the public and program officials about its accomplishments and needs as they approach the budgeting season for 2023.

Columbus Public Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts said the program can scale up, with the proper resources.

"The goal for all of us is to be able to provide our wonderful city services 24/7. So that is our ultimate goal, how long it will take us to get there really depends on staffing, as well as additional resources. So that is the end game, obviously. But we're not quite there yet,” she said.

The response team began with just four hours of staffing on weekdays in 2021, it’s expanded to 16 hours, five days a week.

About 30% of the calls that come through the specialized dispatchers don’t require a police response at all, connecting callers with service providers.

Columbus Fire Capt. Matt Parrish, one of the program’s designers, said several communities across the country are working on programs like Columbus is. The city’s model is emerging as a top solution to moves away from police responses to mental health crises as the program’s successes grow. He said it is making the city’s efforts a blueprint for other communities to emulate.

“There are several models out there that are really great. I think what we're building here is better than all of them,” Parrish said. “And I don't say that just because it's us. I've seen the work. I've met with folks from Denver, and Albuquerque and Portland and Seattle, and still communicate and share ideas with them regularly. But I think what we're building from a totality of care system of care, we are ahead of the curve.”

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.