Report Calls For More Non-Police First Responders In Cleveland

Cleveland Police Headquarters in Downtown Cleveland, Ohio
Cities including Rochester, New York, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Durham, North Carolina, are exploring non-police response programs. [Tim Harrison / Ideastream Public Media]

A new report from Policy Matters Ohio is calling for the expanded use of social workers on calls that usually get a police response.

The report, “Reimagining public safety in Cleveland,” comes as Cleveland faces increasing levels of violent crime and is in the middle of the city’s mayoral primary, where public safety has been the leading issue in the campaign so far.

“A city like Cleveland has been neglected for so long and just adding more police to the equation isn’t the response and it’s been tried before,” said Policy Matters Ohio Senior Researcher Piet van Lier. “We need more transformative steps to change how we respond, how we think of public safety.”

The report’s authors reviewed 10,300 calls for service that came into Cleveland dispatch over a 20-day period this year. They found that 37 percent of those calls could have been answered by non-police responders.

Van Lier says other cities train dispatchers to send mental health or homeless outreach workers to those calls instead.

The report points to a longstanding program in Eugene, Oregon, where a nurse or emergency medical technician is joined by a social worker to respond to many calls for service. According to a 2020 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, these non-police teams responded to 24,000 calls in 2019. Only 311 of those eventually required police backup.

“They’ve been doing this for 30 years and for a fraction of the police budget,” van Lier said.

One difference between Cleveland and Eugene as well as the nearby town of Springfield where the program expanded in 2015, is demographics. More than 80 percent of the population of the two Oregon cities is white.

The program’s coordinator, Tim Black, acknowledged the positive effect that had on the program’s success.

“There’s a lot of privilege that comes along with having a healthy enough relationship with police that you can contact them,” Black told the study’s authors.

Denver launched a similar program in 2020. Rochester, Milwaukee and Durham, North Carolina, are also exploring non-police response programs.

The Cleveland Division of Police has started a co-responder program, paid for by a three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Social workers in Cleveland join officers on some calls involving a mental health crisis.

According to van Lier, that program could be expanded and transformed so no armed police officers repond to the calls.

“What’s really needed is to take a deeper look at how we can just remove police from as much of that as we can,” van Lier said.

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