There is broad agreement that many community issues do not require the presence of an armed officer. But if not the police, then who? Once a jurisdiction has determined what it is trying to achieve with its programming, operation, and systems, it is time to dig into specifics about the responders: who will do the work, with what training and equipment, and under what authority?
Identify responder skills and experiences. Different community issues require different responder skills and backgrounds. For example, responders to calls involving unhoused persons may benefit from relevant lived experience and/or knowledge of shelter and housing options. Responders to individuals experiencing mental or behavioral health crises likely benefit from clinical training. Some skill sets are more useful universally, such as scene safety training, administration of Narcan, or conflict resolution, as discussed in The Policing of Social Conflict.
Click here to read about some of the different types of professionals jurisdictions are enlisting to provide first response services.
Determine infrastructure and equipment needs. The infrastructure and equipment needs of alternative responders will vary according to their responsibilities. For example, no alternative response system can succeed without the means of connecting those in need with those who can help. Will you use your existing dispatch system, or is there some alternative? Other preliminary questions: What type of transportation or vehicles will responders require? What radio systems, computer equipment, or electronic databases will responders need to access, and will these be housed within a vehicle or carried on-person? What life-saving equipment (e.g., first aid kits or Narcan for opioid overdoses) should responders carry? What uniform will responders wear, and what impression (if any) will it convey as to who they are?
These seemingly simple logistical questions can be unexpectedly complex or even fraught. For example, in one jurisdiction we studied, dispatchers had suggested that alternative responders wear bullet proof vests to ensure their safety. The alternative responders themselves, however, objected strongly, as such equipment conflicted with the goals, philosophy, and intended public messaging of the alternative response program.
Determine whether responders should be public employees or private/non-profit contractors. Engaging well-regarded community organizations can provide flexibility, build trust with stakeholders and the public, and make effective use of existing capacities and relationships. However, contracting out services also can mean lower pay and benefits for alternative responders, which can impact recruitment and employee quality of life negatively. As a staggered approach, jurisdictions might consider initially launching a program with contracted services, then bring the program in-house once service levels have stabilized and the program has matured sufficiently. A hybrid approach also is a possibility, in which the city staffs its responder teams with one non-profit contractor (e.g., a clinician) and one city employee (e.g., a paramedic from the fire department).
If responders are public employees, determine whether they are existing workers or new positions.Civil service regulations, labor dynamics, and contractual obligations can impact any assignment to municipal employees. This issue must be evaluated carefully – and possibly negotiated – before an alternative response program can be established. In New York City, for example, the city negotiated with the EMS unions to include a 6 percent pay differential as additional compensation for the paramedics participating in a behavioral health response pilot.
Decide how alternative responders will be trained, by whom, and how often. Training can be a recurrent challenge for jurisdictions that establish alternative response programs. Although some jurisdictions have been able to organize effective multi-disciplinary trainings for an initial cohort of responders, the intensive resource demands of such curricula, which pull personnel from a variety of agencies, can be difficult to replicate when there is staff turnover and a new employee starts. Making training both effective and sustainable is essential.
Consider the legal implications of shifting police duties to alternative responders. In some jurisdictions, there are charters, ordinances, or laws – at either the local or state level – that define the authorities and responsibilities of the police and other municipal actors in very specific terms. These regulations may need to be modified to accommodate new programs.
The Policing of Social Conflict