Because police are among the few government actors available 24/7, they often are called upon and expected to address demands for help around-the-clock. This includes many demands for which they are not trained or well-suited. The constant availability of the police is a big reason they have become our de facto all-purpose responders to just about everything other than fire and medical emergencies.
As you consider an alternative response strategy for your jurisdiction, determining hours of operation will be among your first and most critical choices. Although there are significant challenges associated with piloting a new 24/7 service, anything less is likely to leave the police in their default responder role and undercut efforts to reimagine public safety.
Before delving into the advantages of round-the-clock availability, let’s address the elephant in the room: 24/7 alternatives can be expensive.
To maintain a single responder at all times, accounting for multiple shifts, weekends, time-off, and supervision, you typically must hire four to five employees. Furthermore, you may need to offer enhanced compensation to recruit and retain responders for non-traditional work hours. If your jurisdiction is geographically large and/or low in population density, then you may incur still higher costs to ensure reasonable response times.
Some of these new expenses might be offset by potential savings produced by no longer needing to cover costs associated with traditional public safety responses (e.g., uniformed officers, ambulance transports, etc.). Traditional police responses are costly. For example, in 2019 the White Bird Clinic – which operates the widely cited CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon – stated that its responders saved the city $14 million in emergency system costs, such as ambulance rides and hospital admissions. Relatedly, long-term savings may be realized by reducing residents’ involvement with the criminal justice and social services systems.
But, at least in the short-term, it is realistic to expect that a new 24/7 alternative response program will entail a net increase in costs. And ultimately, investments in critical infrastructure may be necessary to create a fully effective crisis response continuum. For example, New York City invested $90 million to build two new facilities to receive incoming behavioral health patients.
We recognize that budgeting and paying for alternative response will be top of mind for most jurisdictions interested in this work.
Even in acknowledging funding issues, the advantages of 24/7 response capacity are compelling and likely justify the additional allocation of resources. These advantages include:
If funding is the primary obstacle to 24/7 alternative response, then we suggest the following strategies for controlling costs and achieving efficiencies:
Creating a separate, standalone, 24/7 response for each distinct type of 911 call (e.g., a 24/7 response for vandalism, another for welfare checks, another for mental health crisis response, etc.) is likely to be highly cost prohibitive. You might realize an economy of scale by combining response capabilities.
Many 911 call types share similar characteristics that require related professional skillsets. Take, for example, the following community issues:
Although each is a distinct problem, all likely would benefit from a responder trained in mediation and conflict resolution.
To cite another example, calls related to mental health crises, welfare checks, or substance misuse all could be served by responders with social service or therapeutic skillsets.
In short, aggregating along attributes like these may minimize the total number of specialized first responder teams necessary to handle a wide range of community problems.
Even though community problems occur throughout the day, you may observe that certain issues have predictable call patterns, which may allow you to align staffing with anticipated community need.
For example, in one large U.S. city, welfare checks peak between 9:00am – 10:00pm. With data like this, you might decide to staff non-police responders during these peak hours, with police perhaps handling the smaller number of problems that arise outside the normal call pattern.
This is the technique Denver used to structure its Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program – though it responds to behavioral health, homelessness, and substance use issues instead of noise complaints. STAR responders are available for dispatch 7-days a week between 6:00am – 10:00pm, when call volumes for these community issues are highest.
If your community’s needs and expectations are similar to those of nearby jurisdictions, then regionalizing an alternative response program as a shared service could achieve economies of scale.
One example is the Police Social Worker Program in McHenry County, Illinois. Launched in June 2022, it encompasses 18 law enforcement agencies that have partnered to incorporate social work professionals in responding to mental health crises. At least one social worker is available 24/7 to assist callers over the phone, navigate social service systems and resources, and respond to crises in the field alongside officers when necessary.
Other regionalized approaches leverage existing local public health infrastructure, such as the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester’s Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT), which services residents in the southern region of New Hampshire across 8 cities. Launched in 2015, MCRT responds to calls from medical providers, schools, police, and individuals seeking support to provide crisis stabilization and services for mental health or substance use issues.
Several communities that currently operate alternative response models initially launched smaller pilot efforts prior to adding additional units or expanding services across an entire jurisdiction. Launching with a pilot gives alternative responder teams time to adapt to their new role within the public safety landscape, prove the effectiveness of their work, and allow for other practitioners within the space – such as call takers, dispatchers, and officers – to understand and trust new programs.
One way to scale models efficiently over time is to pilot strategies in parts of the city with high incident rates for the specific issue that an alternative response will address. For example, if alternative teams are dispatched to welfare checks, mental or behavioral health crises, and other social services issues, neighborhoods experiencing high incident rates for these issues may most benefit from new alternatives. In 2020, San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Teams (SCRT) launched in this manner, initially piloting one van (paramedic, behavioral health clinician, and peer specialist) in the Tenderloin neighborhood. SCRT now operates 7 vans that serve the full city.
Piloting an initiative also can generate public buy-in and motivate policymakers and officials to assign long-term funding to programs that have demonstrated efficacy. For example, in 2020 Denver launched the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) pilot with only one van serving limited parts of the city. By February of 2022, the city council was ready to approve 5 additional vans with capacity to serve the full city.
Many 911 calls involve serious, life-threatening emergencies that require an immediate, rapid response. But many others do not. It may be that only a subset of your community’s problems truly requires a 24/7 response, and that you can defer other issues to traditional hours of business. You can best sort out which is which by evaluating the urgency and significance of call categories.
For instance, a response to a mental health crisis may be sufficiently urgent to require that alternatives be available 24/7, whereas calls related to minor vandalism may not be as urgent and can be deferred to traditional work hours.
It is important that cities clearly publicize which types of community issues are appropriate for 911, and which should be reported through non-emergency numbers or with an alternative city or state agency. Some jurisdictions provide specific guidance for their residents regarding when it is and is not appropriate to call 911, such as Frederick County, Virginia with its ‘Do’s and Don’ts of 911’. But even with alternative numbers, jurisdictions must decide the hours during which they will respond.