Columbus group proposes no police in mental health crisis responses

Columbus group proposes no police in mental health crisis responses

Members of the Columbus Safety Collective want the city of Columbus implement an alternative emergency response program, one that does not involve police in a crisis response.

The city currently has programs aimed at providing alternative responses and reducing Columbus police responses, but Columbus Safety Collective organizer Alwiyah Shariff said his group believes current measures don’t address true crisis situations.

“The alternatives that currently exist in the city of Columbus do not address this need for non-police teams to respond on scene when someone needs help,” Shariff said during a public meeting of the collective on Wednesday at Trinity Episcopal Church at East Broad and Third streets, Downtown.

“We want the city to invest in a public safety system that our neighbors can rely on and trust, that makes decisions based on evidence, and is accountable to the community,” Shariff said. The group, according to its Facebook page, “exists to create an anti-racist, health-centered emergency response program” for Columbus that does not involve police. 

Last year, the city created a pilot project called the Right Response Unit — a team consisting of a dispatcher, a Columbus Public Health social worker and a city Division of Fire paramedic  — that is embedded in the 911 dispatch center to review calls for potential alternate, non-police responses. The unit’s creation stemmed from the city’s “Re-imagining Public Safety” initiative that leapt to the forefront following the 2020 racial injustice protests in Columbus.

Columbus police’s mobile crisis response (MCR) unit paired a police officer trained in crisis intervention with mental-health and substance-abuse clinicians. The program had clinicians and officers on the street together for about 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and responded to about 6,000 calls. But the agreement with the company providing clinicians ended in 2021.

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Stephen David, Columbus Safety Collective organizer and social worker, said the group is asking the city to allocate money in the 2023 budget to launch a new pilot program that does not include police in mental health crisis responses next year.

David outlined policy points the group hopes will lead to the creation of a new program, including sending teams to crisis settings without police officers and incentivizing hiring crisis responders from “high-need neighborhoods.” David also said the group hopes to see community engagement in the proposed program, hiring and training community members in mental health crisis intervention and medical skills.

He said the group also proposes establishing a community oversight board and paying for outside evaluation to assess the proposed program’s impact through the pilot and beyond.

Chana Wiley, a community organizer with both Ohio Families United for Political Action and Change and the Columbus Safety Collective, also spoke during the meeting about how her own experience shaped her view on the need for alternative, non-police responses. Wiley’s brother, Jaron Thomas, died in police custody in 2017 after he called 911 during a mental health crisis and was restrained by responding police.

“A crisis involving mental or behavioral health does not equate to danger,” Wiley said. “When police respond to these situations, it reduces the chances of people getting the help they truly need. These models work in other cities and we should not have to wait to see one in Columbus.”

The Franklin County Coroner’s Office ruled that Thomas’ death was accidental and his cause of death was a lack of oxygen to his brain due to cardiac arrest, The Dispatch reported. Because the coroner ruled it an accidental death, the Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office declined to present the case to a grand jury.

In 2021, a federal judge dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Thomas’ family against the officers involved.

A spokesperson for Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther could not be immediately reached Thursday for its reaction to the proposal.

Cole Behrens is a reporter at The Columbus Dispatch covering public safety and breaking news. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @Colebehr_report

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