Dayton (OH) Reform Group Wants ‘Alternative Response’ to Some Police Calls

Photo/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Cornelius Frolik

Dayton Daily News, Ohio


One of Dayton’s police reform committees has recommended dispatching “alternative responders” instead of officers to service calls related to mental health, drug addiction and other non-violent activities.

Mental health calls to Dayton’s 911 dispatch have surged, increasing 20% this year to 4,154, according to police data. Officers regularly encounter people struggling with mental illness, psychiatric emergencies, substance abuse and other issues.

One police reform group wants to reduce the frequency of citizen-police interactions by sending a crisis intervention unit in place of officers for some non-violent and non-crime incidents and crises.

Hopefully this will reduce opportunities for escalation and negative outcomes for citizens while freeing up officers to focus on public safety priorities, said Dayton City Commissioner Chris Shaw, co-lead of the community engagement reform group.

“These kinds of things, I think, will help with the kind of engagement that happens between police and citizens,” Shaw said.

Police say they have already taken steps to deal differently with mental health, overdoses and homelessness.

Earlier this month, the police reform group focused on community engagement approved its first recommendation to send to the Dayton City Commission for consideration.

If commissioners approve the proposal, Dayton’s city manager will be directed to develop an implementation plan and options, officials said.

The recommendation calls for sending “alternative responders” “• possibly social workers or mental health professionals “• to certain nonviolent calls for service, such as those related to mental health, homelessness, panhandling and intoxication, group members said.

The group also wants the city to hire or procure alternative responders who are culturally sensitive and represent the communities they serve.

The group wants to build community capacity for alternative-response models and use best practices from models used in other communities, said Shannon Isom, co-lead of the engagement working group.

Many of the details of how this system would work are unclear, but models in other communities have reported reductions in police calls and some success preventing violent police encounters.

“Everything is being considered,” Isom said.

One of the most well-known and publicized programs was developed in the city of Eugene, Oregon, more than 30 years ago.

Called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), the program provides mental health first-response as part of a community-police initiative.

911 dispatchers send unarmed, two-person teams to mental health-related crises and situations such as conflict resolution, welfare checks, substance abuse and suicide threats.

The teams”• consisting of a crisis worker trained in mental health and a nurse, paramedic or EMT”• use “trauma-informed deescalation and harm-reduction techniques.”

The program, which reportedly costs about 2% of the impacted police departments’ budgets, has been credited with saving millions of dollars in public safety costs every year and diverting many people away from the criminal justice system into treatment or mental health services.

There is no perfect model, but Dayton could adopt policies and strategies from other communities and tailor fit them to meet the local need, said Commissioner Shaw.

He also said Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) has been working on an alternative response model in conjunction with police leadership.

Shaw said hopefully a new crisis unit would lead to fewer negative citizen-police interactions and use-of-force incidents. He said he also hopes fewer people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse end up arrested, charged and jailed.

Many people need help and treatment and don’t belong in the criminal justice system, he said.

The Dayton Police Department received 4,154 mental health-related calls for service this year through mid-October, which is up from 3,451 during the same period in 2019, according to police data.

About five years ago, the department created a mobile crisis response team focused on mental health, which grew out of downtown engagement project that strived to reduce calls for service involving the mentally ill and the homeless population.

The unit has grown from one full-time officer to four, who respond to and follow up on calls related mental health and other issues. One officer follows up on drug overdoses.

The department also said it has been working on a partnership to have a mental health professional ride along and respond to these types of calls. This would be in partnership with ADAMHS.

Current policing strategies are antiquated and do not properly address what’s actually happening in the community today, said Jo’el Jones, a member of the community engagement reform committee.

Police officers generally are not mental health or behavioral specialists, nor are they expert substance abuse interventionists, she said, and society and government expect too much from law enforcement.

She said experts in those areas should work alongside police, because that should lead to better results and outcomes.

But Jones said the city’s five reform groups were created to address the racial oppression of policing, and mental health is just a part of the problem. She said more change is needed.

This is a historic opportunity for needed sweeping reforms, and political courage is needed to demand more of the people who are entrusted to protect and serve the community, she said.

“We have to address why it’s acceptable for black folks to be judged in the streets, and executed for their crime, before they have had an opportunity to be judged by a jury of the peers,” she said.

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