What Public Safety Without Police Looks Like
From San Francisco to Philadelphia, cities across the country are creating fully unarmed response teams to address emergencies that used to call for cops.
In hindsight, it’s perhaps not surprising that Albuquerque was one of the first major cities last year to announce that it would create an unarmed, civilian team to respond to nonviolent emergencies and mental health crises. The city’s police force has been in disarray for quite some time. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the local U.S. attorney’s office found that the city’s cops routinely beat, use stun guns against, and shoot “people who pose a minimal threat,” and that encounters “between Albuquerque Police officers and persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.” Since then, the city and the federal government have struggled to rein in problem cops and force the department to comply with much-needed reforms.
But, in June, after the police-reform uprising in 2020 that began after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced that his city would create its own, unarmed Community Safety division, which will be responsible for calls related to “inebriation, homelessness, addiction, and mental health.”
“While many cities are only now waking up to these issues, Albuquerque is well into its police reform process and we decided to tackle these tough questions head on when we took office,” Keller, who’s been mayor since 2017, said in a June press release. “For years, we’ve heard the public calling for a better solution for de-escalation and more officers for community policing, and we have been listening.”
Keller’s announcement was one of the first of many major changes that local city governments made after the Floyd uprising, according to a review by The Appeal. While there has been little movement at the federal level to reconceive American policing in any meaningful way, numerous cities have launched significant “civilian responder” pilot programs that will send behavioral health experts and unarmed assistance—rather than cops—to emergencies.
There are few, if any, metrics to show that training armed cops to deal with mentally ill people reduces use-of-force incidents. To the contrary, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, at least 23 percent of fatal shootings by police since 2015 have involved someone with a mental illness. Other sources estimate the proportion is much higher. And, according to a December 2020 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, police “crisis intervention team training”—that is, the methods by which armed cops are taught to interact with those with mental illness—aren’t working either. The review found some evidence that crisis intervention team-style training results in more people sent to mental health diversionary courts where they’re available.
“There is little evidence in the peer-reviewed literature,” the study states, “that shows CIT’s benefits on objective measures of arrests, officer injury, citizen injury, or use of force.”
Christy Lopez, Georgetown Law professor and co-lead of the school’s Program on Innovative Policing, told The Appeal, “We’ve come to completely over-rely on police as a response to community needs, public safety and community well-being.”
“We just reflexively send them and they are often not at all the best response to the challenge or problem,” she added.
Before 2020, a few cities had already moved away from using gun-toting cops to handle mental health calls. Most notably, since 1989 the city of Eugene, Oregon, has operated its Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, in which thousands of routine emergency calls are diverted away from cops and toward other behavioral health employees or social workers. Of 24,000 calls to the CAHOOTS program in 2019, only 150 required police backup. Following the success in Eugene, other cities, including Portland and Philadelphia, formed similar crisis response teams.
For decades, Eugene’s program was fairly distinct among U.S. cities, but following the anti-police-brutality uprising of 2020 it serves as a model that can be implemented nationwide. In the last half of 2020, city governments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Albuquerque, St. Petersburg, Florida, and Minneapolis each moved to create a fully unarmed team of healthcare workers for nonviolent emergencies.
On June 11, San Francisco mayor London Breed announced that the city was developing a “systematic response plan to improve direct connection to community-based or City service providers, such as the CAHOOTS model of crisis response.” In August, her office announced that it would create Street Crisis Response teams, which would respond to nonviolent emergencies and help those in the midst of mental health crises. (According to its own data, San Francisco Police Department officers responded to over 50,000 calls related to mental health and well-being checks in 2019.) On Dec. 1, the city’s police union signed off on the plan.
In June, Denver launched its Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program, which had been in development before the Floyd protests began. From June through September, the Denver Post reported, the STAR van responded to mental health calls throughout the city without calling police for backup.
In October, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-0 to begin looking for outside vendors who could work as unarmed first responders for those in crisis across America’s second-largest city.
“By creating a robust non-armed crisis response model, we are investing in the future of our public safety,” council member Bob Blumenfield said during the vote, according to CNN.
And for five days in early December, New York City took a small step toward ensuring public safety without cops. Police officers withdrew from a two-block section of the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville, Brooklyn, allowing community groups to act as violence interrupters and crisis-management groups to patrol the area instead. City agencies also operated booths along the blocks, distributing information on opportunities for housing, jobs, and education.
In 2020, Brownsville recorded 25 murders and 580 felony assaults. But during the Brownsville Safety Alliance experiment, only one call was made to 911—from a bus driver who accidentally activated a distress signal.
“People are just so fearful of crime and the minute you say ‘take the police away,’ their minds just go to those places,” Lopez, of Georgetown Law, said. “We have to be willing to invest in these programs.”
We’re shifting the conversation from police responding to crises to someone else responding in crisis. How about we try to make it that we have far fewer crises?Christy Lopez, Professor, Georgetown University Law Center
Several other cities across the country announced cuts to their police budgets in 2020, with the intention to reallocate portions of those funds to the community and decrease the demand for police.
In August, the Austin City Council voted to cut $150 million from the city’s police department, or roughly one-third of the department’s budget. About $50 million of that reduction will be reinvested in addressing community needs like substance use care, housing, and food access.
Perhaps most notably, Minneapolis, after significant infighting, voted to divert nearly $8 million from the Minneapolis Police Department in order to fund a new team within the city’s Office of Violence Prevention that would respond to mental health crises and small offenses, such as parking infractions.
While activists have demanded that armed cops be excluded from as many encounters as possible, governments in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, Omaha, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, and other smaller localities announced plans this year to pair cops with social workers in pilot programs.
Changing who responds to problems is part of the solution to police violence, advocates and organizers say, but many agree that society needs to go further. “We’re shifting the conversation from police responding to crises to someone else responding in crisis,” Lopez said. “How about we try to make it that we have far fewer crises?”