Durham City Council is set to approve its 2023-24 budget on Tuesday night. Part of the approval includes a significant investment in the city's unarmed first responder unit, coined HEART (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team).
City leaders are investing nearly $2 million dollars into its Community Safety Department which just last summer launched as the first of its kind in North Carolina.
The department currently employs around 20 people who aim to assist and de-escalate 911 calls that relate to capacity outside of police officers' training. HEART responders are unarmed and respond alongside officers but often alone or just provide call counseling.
Since HEART launched last June, it has garnered a lot of community support with multiple community members supporting expansion at city council meetings this spring.
"There were, you know, a number of things that we were hoping we'd see at the end of the first year. I think one of them was that the neighbors that we serve would be asking for more HEART. And so, you know, seeing the yard signs and other forms of kind of an outpouring of support is encouraging," said Ryan Smith, the director of the Community Safety Department.
Smith said one of the biggest feedback was the need for the team to be available citywide and 24/7.
"Safety and relief in a moment of crisis."
Currently, the team operates in around a third of the city and has only been able to assist with about a fifth of the calls it receives.
The additional funding will allow the pilot program to grow by 150% with 27 new openings. Fully staffed this will allow the service to expand citywide and be available 12 hours a day. The city aims to have the department handle 13,900 calls a year, which would account for 10% of the 911 calls the city receives.
Shanise Hamilton, a Durham resident and member of Durham Beyond Policing, has worked with the city to develop the program and has pushed for its expansion.
"It's sad that you know, it's only been a small part of our community that has had access to this program. But we all deserve to have access to and skilled professionals who can come and help us in a moment of crisis," Hamilton said.
She said she's heard an outpour of personal stories from people who wished when they were in a crisis that an unarmed person was available.
"It's just this feeling of safety and relief in a moment of crisis," Hamilton expressed. "That little piece of relief to have help coming and the help that's coming is actually coming to help me in this moment."
Data from the city reveal HEART responders have answered 6,500 calls since last summer. The team mostly assists with follow-up calls (33%), mental health crises (12%) and trespassing concerns (11%).
"Follow up is our commitment that we're not just about coming in that 20 or 30 minutes to kind of address the immediate, most acute and de-escalate and be gone. It's recognizing that if we really want to create greater stability, if we want to reduce the likelihood that there will be a future crisis call of a similar nature, then we need to come back," Smith said.
Smith said the team's work has saved officers at least 1,500 hours this past year as HEART as diverted 65 % of calls they assist with.
"We take a trespass call or something else and they know they would have had to go to that call were it not for us and that frees them up to be available for other calls. And so that's one of the benefits of having this type of new response," Smith said.
Smith said the expansion of HEART will help but more is needed to help some of the ongoing issues of the people the team regularly serves.
"We want to see us thrive."
Data from the program show around 40% of the people the team serves have behavioral health and clinical needs. Other top needs include housing, substance use and general support.
"We don't have enough services for some of the kinds of needs that we have," he said. "When we're dealing with neighbors who may be unhoused or unsheltered, who may have mental health-related needs or substance use, who may have no network of support here, it's very difficult to be able to find the appropriate services to support those neighbors."
He said part of his department's work is identifying where gaps in other areas of support might be.
"HEART in and of itself can't solve every one of these challenges, right? It's about all of the resources that we have and some that we don't have in our community and figuring out how we can address those gaps," he said.
Looking ahead, Smith said he will continue to review multiple factors when defining success for the HEART program. Factors like support from the community, reviewing where they are transporting patients to and ability to connect people to the appropriate care.
Hamilton and other community members were pushing for 24/7 access to HEART, which was not funded by the city council. She hopes in the future this is something the city can offer.
"We want to see us thrive and for that to happen, we have to feel safe. We have to feel connected and I think the expansion of this program is definitely going to do that for a lot of us," Hamilton said.
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