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Community-Based Emergency First Responders: Explained

Community-Based Emergency First Responders: Explained


In our Explainer series, Justice Collaborative lawyers, journalists, and other legal experts help unpack some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines—like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine—so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail.

A Wendy’s employee in Atlanta, Georgia, called 911 and reported that a man was blocking their drive-thru. He appeared to be asleep, intoxicated, and unarmed. The operator dispatched police, who arrived and spoke to the man, Rayshard Brooks, for about 30 minutes. Then, instead of allowing him to call for a ride home or giving him one, the officers sought to arrest him. The interaction escalated, as police attempted to handcuff and Tase him. Mr. Brooks grabbed a Taser and ran away from the officers. Officer Garrett Rolfe chased him and fired three shots, ultimately killing Mr. Brooks.

What would have happened had armed law enforcement not arrived? What if some other response was available? What if when a person calls for help, they have access to a response that doesn’t come with guns or badges? 

What if when you called 911, a social worker or crisis counselor was dispatched instead? What if when they arrived, they simply provided the necessary care, like a well-being check or a ride home? What if we could respond to problems without arrests, violence, and killing? 

Alternatives to policing have gained increasing attention over the last month as protests continue and cities come to terms with the brutality of their police departments. In an attempt to respond to growing calls for defunding and dismantling, local officials have also begun to seek ways to shift problem-solving from police to individuals or agencies more likely to offer actual solutions. One such alternative is community-based emergency response systems. 

At their core, these programs use community-based, trained teams to respond to issues like mental health crises, substance use, and homelessness in lieu of relying upon armed police officers. The teams include medics, crisis counselors, and social workers, and operate independently from law enforcement. Their use is growing around the country. And their existence shows us that we can address challenges that we face without resorting to violence, incarceration, and punishment. 

Why We Need Community-Based Emergency Response Systems 

Law enforcement has become the default response to almost every problem. Vulnerabilities have been outsourced to police officers so that they no longer just respond to “crimes,” but to any crisis within a community. This includes mental and behavioral health emergencies, drug overdoses, and homelessness—challenges that we have criminalized because we have not adequately addressed them through sufficient social services, accessible housing, and universal healthcare. 

This outsourcing has had devastating results.

The Treatment Advocacy Center has found that people with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians who come into contact with law enforcement. A report by the Ruderman Family Foundation estimates that up to half of the people killed by police have some sort of disability, with a significant portion experiencing mental illness. Tragedies like those of Osaze Osagi, Jaron Thomas, Anthony Hill, Pamela Turner, and Charleena Lyles show the danger of dispatching police to handle a mental or behavioral health crisis. And policing reforms, like increasing the number of officers with “crisis-intervention-training,” have not been shown to mitigate this danger. 

Police are no better at addressing crises related to lack of housing. Instead of compassion and connections to social services, police have been dispatched to forcibly remove people from public spaces, throw away their belongings, and charge them with crimes. Police encounters with uhoused people often end in violence, abuse, and incarceration. 

And while much of the country sees substance use as a health issue, rather than a criminal one, police are still sent to respond to potential drug overdoses. Instead of safe injection sites and readily available treatment, people struggling with substance use end up with criminal charges and online notoriety

In sum, when people are in crisis, they need help, not handcuffs. Sending police to respond to and support individuals in these moments is not just a bad idea, it is a dangerous one. That is why it is imperative that communities adopt community-based crisis response teams. 

How We Get There 

Cities and counties seeking to implement these alternatives in their own communities already have successful models to look to for inspiration. The CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Oregon has been in operation for decades, and currently responds to about 20 percent of the 911 calls the community receives. Portland and Denver are both in the early stages of promising pilot programs, and Austin has recently expanded its Mobile Crisis Outreach Team and implemented telehealth services to respond to mental and behavioral health crises. 

As communities call for decreasing police budgets, local governments can reallocate those funds to new programs or existing social services that are able to develop or expand their crisis response. Lack of funding is no excuse for inaction on this issue. As organizers have noted in protests across the country, funding has never been an issue when we’re talking about policing. It is time to spend money on programs that actually keep us safe and promote our collective well-being. 

Key Elements of Model Programs

A model crisis response program should follow these principles: 

Be separate from law enforcement: A crisis response program should be entirely separated from law enforcement. This includes team members, managers, and anyone in an oversight position. One of the common ways teams are dispatched is through 911 calls that are routed to the crisis response team, but a city or county could also create a number that routes directly to the crisis response team. 

Include on-site, on-demand emergency and preventative services: Crisis response programs should provide both emergency and preventive services. This means meeting people where they are and referring people to necessary services and treatment. Ideal crisis response teams include both a medic and a crisis worker who can provide “immediate stabilization in case of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, assessment, information, referral, advocacy and (in some cases) transportation to the next step in treatment.”

Be fully funded through law enforcement budget reallocation: Funding must be provided to both create and operate a crisis response team. As cities and counties grapple with budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting money out of police budgets and to these more effective programs makes sense and makes the development of this alternative to policing feasible.

As communities around the country call for fundamental changes to and even complete abolishment of policing, we must stop deploying armed law enforcement to crises that are better addressed by social workers, medics, and counselors. This shift is urgent and necessary.