Durham City Manager Wanda Page announced Friday that the newly approved Community Safety Department will respond to issues that don't necessarily need an armed law enforcement response. The department will be designated to calls such as mental or behavioral health needs, minor traffic incidents, quality-of-life issues and calls for general assistance. Page stressed that the group will not send social workers to respond to gun violence.
"The creation of this department reflects our belief that responding to the safety and wellness needs of all of our residents requires more than police officers, firefighters and paramedics," she said.
City Council approved a $2.8 million budget to the pilot department which came from the city's General Fund and transferring of vacant positions from other departments.
The Community Safety Department has been in the works within the Durham City Council for nearly a year. Page notes that RTI International, a nonprofit that provides research to government bodies, conducted an "in-depth analysis" that observed nearly 1 million 911 calls from Durham residences between 2017 and 2020. RTI also observed Durham Police Department's use-of-force policy.
City of Durham announces the Community Safety Department
The pilot initiative comes as the nation faces an ongoing conversation of policing in communities of color more than a year after the high-profile police killing of George Floyd. One of the most visible calls locally being a soon-to-be-removed "DEFUND" mural placed in front of the Durham Police Department.
Fifteen positions will be allocated to the department -- half of which will include mental health professionals, licensed social workers and other trained civilian responders; the other half will provide research support to the community task force and other partnerships. Positions will go up on the City of Durham website as early as the end of June, with hopes to begin hiring in July.
Many of Durham's officers supported the establishment of the Community Safety Department, according to Page.
As the Community Safety Department makes progress, Page says the department will take input from police, fire, emergency communications and other communities that have implemented such an approach like Denver, Colorado.
"Evidence from other communities 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," she said.
In six months, the Durham City Council will reconvene on the implementation of the Community Safety Department.