Durham's unarmed first response team makes big impact in first 6 months

Samantha Kummerer Image
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
Durham's HEART program makes big impact in first 6 months
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An experimental response team hoping to save lives and help improve Durham's ability to respond to mental health crises is seeing positive early returns.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The walls of Durham's Community Safety Department are covered in colorful Post-It notes. Some of the notes contain 'kudos' to members of the 26-person HEART program, Durham's crisis response program. Other notes have scribbles of reminders of resources needed, ideas to target ongoing problems and department goals.

"I will say I love this work, and I think that everything is reflected throughout our department. We are very passionate about it.," explained Anise Vance, the assistant director of Durham's Community Safety Department.

Six months ago the City of Durham was one of the first municipalities in the state to launch an unarmed first responder program. The pilot program coined 'HEART' aims to relieve armed police officers of certain calls while offering more adequate resources for handling issues related to mental health.

Since June, the team has grown to 26 staff members who range from EMTs to admins to clinicians. Some of these individuals left emergency room settings or private therapy offices with the hopes of making more of a difference in responding to the root of issues.

"A big thing is meeting people where they are, and realizing that an emergency department is not going to be the answer for everything and that we can't expect the police to be the answer for everything," said Jessica Laube, a HEART community safety clinician.

The program is taking a multipronged approach to add mental health resources to public safety. Clinicians will be embedded into the 911 call center, respond without officers and complete follow-up calls.

Early data shows the team has responded to more than 2,500 calls since June with call responses growing each month.

A large chunk of HEART's response is dedicated to follow-up calls.

"We do a lot of that work in hopes that we can get our neighbors connected to longer-term care," Vance explained. "That's important for our neighbors and it's also important for us as a city so that folks who call into 911 all the time now are being sent to a place where they can get the right kind of support, the right kind of wraparound services that we can't necessarily offer as a single department."

Calls related to trespassing and mental health crises are also high on the team's response list. Around 15% of the calls handled by the team have been related to mental health crises or crisis call diversion.

"Those moments of a mental health crisis can be devastating if they are not handled with care and if they're not addressed with real love and compassion and concern for the neighbor who's undergoing that crisis," Vance said.

However, the team has handled everything from suicide attempts to domestic disputes to welfare checks.

Each call that the HEART teams can handle alone, means less time officers have to spend on issues that they may not be best suited to handle.

"Now the police officers get to focus on the work that they've been trained for and they really find their passion," explained Vance.

The community response teams have diverted around 800 calls away from police since June.

Early data also shows the approach is safe with 0% of staff reporting the need for police backup due to safety.

Of the people, HEART team members have interacted with around half need general clinician support, behavioral healthcare and housing.

Laube said in the short time the teams have been serving the community, they have been met with enormous appreciation and response from Durham.

"I think people for a while have been wanting to see what a different response looks like and to know that it's happening where they live and in their home and in their city. I think that people are excited about it to know that they still have fire, EMS, police and now that they have another option that is available for them to respond when appropriate," Laube said.

Currently, the team is limited in where it serves. Clinicians only respond to calls in around a third of the city but the staff is hoping to expand.

In the coming months, clinicians on the co-response teams will begin driving with officers. The department also hopes to release data on the number of arrests and hospital transports that are diverted due to the involvement of HEART individuals.

In the future, Laube hopes the department and its impact continue to grow and make a positive impact.

"I think that success will look like us continuing to grow. It will look like us continuing to meet our neighbors' needs. It will look like building strong relationships with partners in the community so that we're able to meet our neighbors' needs," she said.