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Durham Will Send Unarmed Responders to Some 911 Calls

Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams (HEART) will use trained mental health professionals in the 911 center and on calls in the field when people are experiencing non-violent behavioral and mental health crises.

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(TNS) — Durham launched a new crisis-response initiative this week that may change how residents think about calling 911 during an emergency.

Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams (HEART) will use trained mental health professionals in the 911 center and on calls in the field when people are experiencing non-violent behavioral and mental health crises.

HEART, which falls under the city’s new Community Safety Department, consists of four pilot programs, including three now underway.


Starting Wednesday, HEART began dispatching three-person civilian teams, instead of armed police officers, on certain non-violent 911 calls, the city said in a news release.

Each team has a mental health clinician, a peer support specialist and an emergency medical technician trained to work with people in crises and ensure a “caring handoff” to service providers, the city said.

The responders will be trained in de-escalation and situational awareness.

This pilot will primarily serve an area seen in an online map composed of downtown, the areas south and east of downtown, and large parts of northeast Durham. The service area also includes parts of Duke University’s East Campus.

This service area, according to the city, was selected based on the high volume of “eligible” emergency calls there.

“Our hope,” Community Safety Director Ryan Smith said in a news release, “is that this will reduce the number of repeat calls to 911 for the same unmet needs, which will increase capacity for our law enforcement, EMS, and 911 call takers to be able to respond to higher priority calls for service.”

The Community Safety Department selected what types of 911 call qualify after consulting other first responders and reviewing local data on the calls. The city cited “evidence from other cities with a track record of safely dispatching unarmed responders,” like Denver, San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon.

The HEART pilot programs will not respond to calls involving weapons or violence. The teams’ locations in the field will be monitored by emergency dispatch services, and they will be able to radio for backup from law enforcement, if needed.


The city says Durham will be the first in the state to launch this pilot, which will embed mental health clinicians within the Durham Emergency Communications Center to connect 911 callers to mental health professionals in emergencies citywide.

“Evidence from other communities that have launched similar programs gives me confidence that alternative responders can reduce some of the current, heavy call load on our police officers, meaning we can free up those officers to focus on violent crime — the area where we need them the most,” City Manager Wanda Page said in the news release.


In this week’s third pilot, people who meet with HEART responders will receive a follow-up meeting within 48 hours in person or by phone to connect them with mental and behavioral health care.

The pilots will initially operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and expand into evenings and weekends later this summer.

“While we are the first in our state to place mental health professionals inside our 911 Center and to dispatch unarmed response teams to mental health calls, we are not the first in the country,” Smith said in the release. “Other cities are already showing the promise of these new approaches to public safety, and this gives us confidence that these pilots can help us do an even better job of caring for our neighbors in crisis in ways that are safe for all involved.”

A fourth pilot program slated to launch later this summer, titled Co-Response, will dispatch mental health professionals alongside police officers in situations of greater safety risk.

Similar programs in the Triangle include Chapel Hill’s Crisis Unit, a 24-hour co-response team that supports town police officers on crisis calls, as well as the Raleigh’s ACORNS (Addressing Crises through Outreach, Referrals, Networking, and Service) team, which operates in the same way.

Durham allotted $4 million to create The Community Safety Department with 15 full-time positions. Its role is to “enhance public safety through community-centered approaches to prevention and intervention as alternatives to policing and the criminal legal system,” according to the city budget.


Durham Beyond Policing, a police accountability activist group, praised the launch of HEART and credited years of activism and advocacy work to build support for a publicly funded programs like these.

In a statement posted to its Instagram page, however, the group said HEART should have been better funded by the city.

“Electeds will say it’s just the pilot year,” the post stated. “But limited staffing reduces the geographic scope that unarmed community response pilots could have capacity to address, and puts unfair strain on these important first responders during a pandemic, mental health crisis, and economic downturn where Durham residents are crying out for skilled care and the resources we need to live.”

More funding for the pilots with a larger reach in the city “would have been well justified by the widespread enthusiasm [for the programs] across Durham City and County residents,” the group said.

Durham residents can stay informed about the HEART pilot programs through the monthly reports that will be placed on the department’s website. The city is scheduled to publish a first report reviewing the program’s early results in August.

The city has made information on HEART and frequently asked questions available on the city website.

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