There is a growing national consensus, encompassing community leaders, elected officials, and public safety professionals alike, that we ask the police to do too much – dispatching them to address a range of social challenges for which they are often unsuited or untrained. As a result, underlying problems fester without resolution, police and societal resources are wasted, and mistrust between community and law enforcement intensifies. In far too many instances, the presence of an officer results in unnecessary entanglement with the criminal justice system or the avoidable use of force, including deadly force. These adverse effects are borne by our entire society but fall disproportionately on Black and brown communities.
With growing awareness, however, also comes opportunity – the opportunity to reimagine public safety systems, so that they better serve the needs of our diverse communities.
The city of Tucson’s local perspective is consistent with the national experience described above. With a higher-than-average poverty rate, the strain on Tucson’s public safety systems is especially acute.1 Many Tucsonans, including law enforcement leaders, agree that patrol officers are ill-equipped to respond to crises concerning poverty, housing, mental health, and substance misuse. In addition, Tucson has faced difficult police recruitment and staffing constraints. These factors together have led to multiple changes in public safety programming and services.
In this report, we present shared learnings from conversations with Tucson residents – especially from some communities most affected by policing – municipal actors across several agencies, and non-profit service providers. We probe perceptions, ideas, and attitudes about emergency response practices and alternatives, with the added benefit of fostering mutual understanding among groups that do not always communicate openly or constructively. Through this case study, we generate an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Tucson’s transformational efforts and offer recommendations for additional progress, while also surfacing issues and challenges with broader national relevance.
Tucson has several innovative public safety initiatives such as: TC-3, which aims to reduce frequent 911 usage; crisis mobile teams, which provide in-person crisis care services to individuals with mental health or substance use issues; embedded 911 clinicians who can offer phone-based support to individuals experiencing crisis; the Community Safety, Health & Wellness Program, which coordinates service delivery across municipal departments and in conjunction with community partners; the Housing First program, which encourages non-police intervention and support services for unhoused individuals to transition to stable housing; and the more recent addition of the Community Health & Acute Response Team(CHART) — a real-time alternative response to the police that started being dispatched directly through its 911 center in June 2023.
In addition, Tucson has undertaken efforts to triage 911 calls in order to prioritize true emergencies for a police response, and improve the efficiency of resource allocation (See Appendix 1 for an analysis of these calls.)
These various efforts have merit and promise, but we have identified significant gaps in program vision, capacity, coordination, and community awareness that impede the full achievement of Tucson’s public safety goals and that continue to generate friction between the police and the people they serve. In particular, patrol officers too often remain the default responders to emergency calls related to issues of mental and behavioral health, homelessness, drug use, trespassing, and interpersonal conflict.
Tucson has begun to make some important progress to close the gaps we describe. In June 2023 (after our data collection concluded), they launched a real-time alternative response to police called the Community Health & Acute Response Team (CHART). CHART can respond to calls about low-risk wellbeing checks. This program is in its infancy and requires additional investment to reach the point of being a robust alternative to police intervention. Furthermore, the November 2023 rollout of 311 will be a new, important way for residents to access services outside of 911 and will provide emergency call- takers an option to divert non-emergency calls to an appropriate line. And the Community Safety, Health, and Wellness Program is in the process of expanding its Care Coordinator program to respond directly to community needs. These efforts will be critical as Tucson charts a path toward a more responsive first response system.
We begin with a brief overview of our methodology. We then share observations from the community conversation and individual interviews, focusing specifically on relationships to the police, experiences with the 911 system, views on police accountability and force, and who should provide public safety. Next, we describe in more detail Tucson’s portfolio of public safety response and service programs as they have evolved over the past several years. We also share some observations and excerpts from the community conversation about some of these programs. We then bring the community and municipal conversations together to discuss how both community and municipal participants want to see non-police 911 response options (though police respondents hold complex views on this topic). We conclude by discussing gaps, challenges, and recommendations.