Decision Points for Jurisdictions
Scope the Program

Following community engagement, the next step is scoping the program – determining its basic purpose, structure, features, and capabilities. Certain decisions and processes must clearly be made, such as when and where the program will operate, and what types of community issues it will address. Others may not be as obvious but should not be overlooked, such as thoughtfully articulating high-level and specific program goals, mapping neighborhood assets, considering the role of the police, and planning ahead for program evaluation.  

Look to other cities, but tailor models to your local needs. ‍Sharing information among jurisdictions is at the very heart of our work on Reimagining Public Safety, and we naturally encourage jurisdictions to draw on successful models, while also learning from those that stalled. However, every community is unique, and local factors – history, demographics, geography, resources – must be considered before simply importing a template that worked elsewhere.

Engage practitioners and other internal stakeholders. Alternative response programs rely on the coordination and collaboration of stakeholders across government agencies and across all ranks. Learning from practitioners of the work – from policymakers to 911 call takers, police leadership to paramedics – is a critical first step and should be part of an ongoing effort. It is important not only to learn from their insights and experiences, but also to put these different stakeholder groups in conversation with each other early in the process. This will build the familiarity and trust that will make the program successful.

Articulate the goals of the program. Even within a single jurisdiction, policymakers and frontline staff can have widely divergent views about the goals of an alternative responder program. Is the program intended to: Reduce calls to 911? Decrease police workload? Provide better connections to care for residents? Promote harm reduction? Decrease officer involved shootings? Any program could have some or even all of these goals, but it is vital to define them clearly and explicitly. That is because these goals will serve as the basis for program design, data collection, messaging to the public, and assessment of performance.

Identify what community issues (or calls for service) to address. This decision may sound simple, yet is anything but. It often starts with an analysis of calls for service data and benefits from careful collaboration with the community. Fortunately, there are models to draw upon. In Ithaca, NY, a multi-stakeholder working group led by the Center for Policing Equity voted to determine which calls for service should be recommended for a non-police response. Several jurisdictions, such as Chicago and New York, began with behavioral health-focused responses. Others have rolled out more specialized programs to address a particular resource gap that the community identified, such as the mediation response program in Dayton, Ohio. Identifying strong local partners through community capacity and resource mapping also can help to determine the substantive focus of the program, as in the case of Atlanta’s Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative and Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program. Finally, once the call types are established, cities should ensure they have a process for adjusting and adding to the call types as the program grows over time.

Identify the services to be provided. Once alternative responders arrive on the scene, what will they do? Some possibilities include: crisis stabilization, connection to care, transportation to needed services, medical care, locating and providing basic needs like food or clothing, conflict resolution, code enforcement, report writing, and scene security. Identifying intended services early is vital to program design and functionality. To cite one example, a response to behavioral health needs can be strengthened greatly when responders are authorized to transport individuals to services. Indeed, our research in Denver found that transportation to services — such as to get a prescription refilled — was an important a part of the city’s STAR program, although transportation may not be an obvious function to include initially in a behavioral health responder program.

Map the available neighborhood resources and assets, then identify the gaps. ‍An accurate community asset or resource map can be essential to understanding needs and service gaps. There are several things to consider as a part of this exercise: aim to include a broad range of trusted local organizations and not just the “usual suspects” of long-established service providers; consider the geographic accessibility of services, recognizing that variable response times can impact the equity of care; and, finally, evaluate barriers that may impede access to care for those who need it, such as homeless shelter rules that require sobriety or exclude pets.

Determine costs and funding mechanisms. We worked with the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) to understand how jurisdictions fund alternative response programs and the factors contributing to funding decisions. Overall, GFOA found that local taxes are the primary funding source, while limited use also is being made of American Rescue Plan Act funds and Medicaid reimbursement. Jurisdictions also should evaluate budget impact holistically, recognizing that costs and savings may materialize in departments or categories not previously accounted for under public safety.

Determine operational responsibility and accountability. Simply removing a function from the police department and placing it under another municipal department does not automatically result in improvement. Jurisdictions should determine carefully the entity best suited to manage an alternative response program, considering organizational capacity, staffing levels, leadership, and culture. Some jurisdictions have established a new department of community safety, while others have situated their alternative response programs under existing health or fire departments. Once a department is selected, a number of sub-questions arise: Where will the units physically be housed – at a police or fire station? What agency is responsible for logistics and vehicle management, and do they require additional staff to do so?

Determine geographical boundaries. Should the program begin within certain geographical bounds or be jurisdiction-wide? If the former, how should the service area be defined? Many programs begin in limited geographical areas before they scale up, with the selection of specific neighborhoods linked to program goals. For example, Denver launched its alternative response program in the downtown corridor with limited capacity and hours. There are good reasons to start small – projects can be more successful when service providers know the populations they are serving, and focusing initially on a specific area may allow for a higher, more consistent level of service. At the same time, a geographically-limited program may pose challenges for 911 call center staff who only can dispatch alternative responders in certain neighborhoods. Containing alternatives to specific geographies and neighborhoods also may over- or under- serve certain communities. Jurisdictions should be mindful of the racial and ethnic breakdown of their local geographies when making decisions about a program’s operating area.

Select hours of operation.‍ Police and other public safety entities employed by the government work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Thus, we must ask: Should a new program also respond to calls 24/7? If not, what hours? Which days of the week? This is in part a question about resources, but also about the nature of the issues requiring response. For example, welfare check calls may appear most frequent during the evening hours; if so, a program seeking to handle the majority of these calls would need to operate during that time. Labor, contract, and shift-work issues also may influence the hours that a program functions. Finally, limitations on hours and days of operation would have to be reflected in messaging to avoid confusion on the part of the public. We address the issue of 24/7 response in greater detail here.

Plan early for evaluation, and do so consistently. ‍An evaluation plan, ideally managed by an experienced evaluator or research partner, should be integrated into overall program development at the earliest possible stage. This will help stakeholders and community members assess program outcomes and consider program changes. Be cognizant of potential obstacles to data collection and review – for example, privacy restrictions can constrain the tracking of mental health and medical data, so identifying a legally-compliant data collection and evaluation system would be an essential early step.

Consider the role of the police. The diversion of work to alternative responders raises obvious questions about the size, scope and nature of the responsibilities that remain in the hands of the police. We have heard clearly from community members and government officials that they want the police to focus on violent crime and leave the delivery of social services to others. But if police respond only to situations that pose an immediate health or safety crisis, then opportunities to build relationships and trust with community members may be lost. In any reimagining process, communities should be engaged extensively to determine the needs, priorities, and expectations surrounding public safety generally and the role of the police specifically. In a system of reimagined public safety, the proper role of the police is one of the most important considerations.

Related Reading

Providing Service 24/7

Financing Alternative Response