It doesn’t have to be this way: North Carolina cities explore alternatives to police response for non-violent emergency calls

When there is an emergency or something seems out of control, most people call 911.  Dispatchers usually send police officers to respond — even when their presence is unnecessary and a response beyond traditional policing tactics could be more helpful.

In North Carolina, the data shows that most crime is classified as nonviolent, where a police presence often isn’t necessary to help those requesting it and would possibly escalate a situation, such as when an individual is experiencing a mental health emergency, for example. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, defines “nonviolent crimes” as offenses related to property, drug, and public order that do not involve a threat of harm or an actual attack on a person. The FBI includes in the violent crimes list involvement with drug trafficking, drug possession, burglary, and larceny.

Following the brutality and death of Black people and their interactions with police officers, cities across North Carolina are making changes to their policing procedures. Some are introducing mental health clinicians into the field; others are starting behavioral health programs. And another is giving police officers crisis intervention training to identify calls where an intervention specialist — not a law enforcement officer — is needed.

A restraint policy banned in Greensboro

National headlines in recent years have demonstrated time and again examples of law enforcement initiating force during nonviolent situations, resulting in the death of unarmed Black people. In Greensboro, North Carolina, on Sept. 8, 2018, police officers yet again used fatal force to restrain Marcus Smith, an unarmed, homeless Black man experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Smith was running in and out of traffic, shouting that someone was going to kill him. Once police saw how agitated Smith was, they restrained him in a hogtie position —tying his feet to the handcuffs around his hands and leaving him face down on his stomach on the pavement. Smith soon stopped breathing while restrained in this way and died shortly after.

Hog-tying has since been banned from the Greensboro Police Department (GPD). Smith’s family is suing the city, eight police officers and two county EMS workers in his death. The case is ongoing.

A disproportionate response

Court records show that four years prior to Smith’s death, Greensboro police restrained 275 people by hog-tying them, two-thirds of those people were Black.

Black residents in Greensboro continue to have a strained relationship with GPD as they are disproportionately search Black drivers during traffic stops at a rate more than twice of white drivers. 

And across the state of North Carolina, from 2013 to 2021, police have been twice as likely to kill Black people than their white counterparts

Among the 249 deaths of Black individuals by North Carolina law enforcement in the past eight years, the initial causes of death were listed as a use of force by NC law enforcement stemming from traffic stops, mental health situations, ‘welfare checks,’ nonviolent crimes, drug offenses and warrant services.

Since Smith’s death, the city of Greensboro has moved to make mental health professionals and crisis intervention training a more integrated part of their policing process. Their efforts have shifted since Smith died, and the agency now utilizes a Behavioral Health Response Team (BHRT) — a co-responder program that dispatches professional mental health clinicians in the field with an officer, or sometimes, an officer is sent later as a follow up.

Since 2019, BHRT has supported Greensboro residents and all city employees who need to call and request assistance from the team when they encounter a mental health emergency. 

GPDs BHRT Crisis Counselor Dewey Mullis recognizes how mental health is stigmatized and how it’s effects can alter how people treat each other.

“We talk about mental health as being a stigmatized issue. It’s a human issue. The brain is no different than any other part of the body that gets sick. We just have to connect with those people, and treat them as people and not as an illness,” said Mullis.

This collaborative crisis response partnership between police and mental health clinicians aims to change the outcomes of people living with a mental illness, rather than arresting, charging or hurting them when they need help. 

If the mental health and crisis intervention tactics currently being used by GPD were in practice in 2018, Smith’s deadly encounter with police might have been prevented.

Reimagining emergency resources needed to feel safe in Durham 

In Durham, the majority of 911 calls pertain to citizens needing assistance, said Danielle Purifoy, a member of Durham “Beyond Policing” leadership team. She points out that people mostly call the police when they need some basic form of help. But that form of emergency response has a history resulting in policing and racial violence against Black and brown communities. 

For the past three years Durham examined more than 1 million calls to 911, and found that the majority of them were regarding nonviolent requests for help, and didn’t require an armed officer to be dispatched to the scene. Instead, many of the calls involved mental or behavioral health needs, minor traffic incidents, quality-of-life issues and calls for general assistance.  

“As long as policing and prisons are the central system of what people believe [represent] safety, then it is very difficult for those [policing and prison] programs to work effectively, and it’s very easy to fall back on the police if (an emergency) happens,” said Purifoy.

This data and past policing incidents inspired the Durham Beyond Policing Coalition and Durham For All to create the 10 to Transform campaign, an effort to push the Durham County budget to invest in more mental health services and divest funds from policing to match the volume of calls that reflected the needs of the community. 

Their collective work and advocacy with community members motivated the City Council to start a new Community Safety Department  that will soon hire mental health clinicians, licensed social workers, and other trained civilian responders to answer and arrive at the scene of some 911 calls. 

“People who are actually trained in specific kinds of circumstances and situations that people face on a day to day basis are the types of people who should be responding to these calls, not police,” said Purifoy. 

A Community Safety Department would have been beneficial in saving the life of La’Vante Biggs, a 21-year-old Black man who died in 2015 when police shot and killed him on his front lawn in East Durham after he threatened suicide.

Police received a call from both Biggs and his mother saying that he was suicidal. When police arrived at the scene, he was holding a gun that was later identified as a BB gun. According to the Durham Police Department, after officers negotiated with him for 30 minutes, Biggs “aggressively took steps” toward one of the officers, and four different officers discharged their weapons, killing him.

Purifoy believes that structural conditions like inadequate housing, food, resources and living conditions contribute to higher levels of stress and unmet needs that can lead to choices and acts seen as violations of the law. “The police have historically been placed in Black and brown communities — not to keep them safe — but to keep them away from and to monitor their ability to do things that might have impacts on whiter and wealthier communities,” Purifoy said. 

“There’s no real connection between policing and safety (for these communities).”

Filling systemic racism gaps in Asheville

Black people living in Asheville also experience frequent encounters with police officers in their neighborhoods. They are three times more likely than white drivers to be searched by police in traffic stops, specifically in areas of public housing where 60 percent of the residents are Black. The city’s overall Black population is only 12 percent.

As a result of gentrification, an overwhelming amount of Black residents in Asheville live in subsidized housing complexes like development Deaverview where Jai (Jerry) Lateef Solveig Williams, a 35-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by Sgt. Tyler Radford after a high-speed chase in 2015.

A study found that police violence throughout the country reflects a similar demographic characteristic where a white male cop kills a Black person living with a lower income. This is in part because people living with low incomes are oftentimes more heavily policed, especially if they are Black. 

In 2015, Williams’ death enraged and frightened community members. Gun violence among residents living in subsidized housing in the city increased in the wake of his killing, and so did a collective fear among Black residents toward the Asheville Police Department.

As gun violence escalated, APD’s interim Chief Steve Belcher at the time held a press conference with Rev. Keith Ogden of Stop the Violence Coalition, (a community based organization to combat violence) where he said enough is enough: Violence in subsidized housing needs to stop.

Since the nation-wide summer of protest in 2020 that followed George Floyd’s death by Officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Asheville City Council members have made strides to give Black residents reparations and re-imagine and reinvest in public safety for the Black community. 

Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell said that after Floyd’s death, the city began to look at its institutional role in systemic racism. Out of that examination came Advancing Racial Equity, a plan to implement and advance environmental, economic and social justice in the city. Approaches include changes in nuisance enforcement (animal control and noise complaints), data management, community engagement, homeless outreach, and changes to police training, reform, policy and recruitment. 

Campbell says that reimagining public safety work is ongoing, but in no way should be construed as a device to do away with law enforcement in their city. 

Asheville also drafted a resolution to form a Community Reparations Commission that will make recommendations on how and where to invest funds. The reparations as envisioned are not intended to make direct payments to descendants of enslaved African people from Asheville, but according to the resolution they aim “to increase minority home ownership and access to other affordable housing, increase minority business ownership and career opportunities, strategize to grow equity and generational wealth, closing the gaps in health care, education, employment and pay, neighborhood safety and fairness within criminal justice.” 

While Asheville’s plan to advance racial equity is beneficial to residents of the city, no direct correlation between their plan and stopping police escalations has been prioritized. Black and/or low income people living in Asheville can still experience harm or violence from emergency response dispatches that unnecessarily include police, despite the efforts described above. 

Asheville’s Community Reparations Commission plan strives to solve the issues that community members face with public safety like housing, income, and health care — all examples of circumstances outlined by Purifoy that can lead to mental health crises. 

Statewide legislative efforts for change

More cities across North Carolina — like Charlotte and Winston-Salem — are also working to make changes in how they police communities by focusing on alternative policing measures and implementing mental health experts and crisis intervention training into their plans.

Last year when many Americans were looking for a way to demand justice for Floyd, Jarrod James — a North Carolina native, football coach and policy analyst— stepped into action and worked alongside Cherene Allen-Caraco, founder of Promise Resource Network (a network of people providing mental wellness support) and John Autry, North Carolina state representative, (D-Charlotte) to write North Carolina House Bills:

  • HB 786 could create funding for local departments to better manage crisis response teams.
  • HB 787 deals with revamping the involuntary commitment format.
  • HB 788 focuses on the efforts of mental health resilience.

“We wanted to ensure that whatever side of the political system people fell on — regardless we were creating bills for NC residents who are suffering from mental health trauma and crises and that they could still get the help they needed without politics getting in the way of their wellness,” said James.  

If the proposed bills are passed they have the ability to lay the foundation for alternative policing in North Carolina and lead to changing the stigma that exists in society around mental health. 

While these bills are the first of their time in the state, they can provide foundational structure for cities that have yet to attempt or are already utilizing alternative forms of policing.

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