Michael Hilliard.

Representatives of a national group that promotes diverting many 911 calls to “community responders” discussed the concept at a 5th Ward meeting in Evanston Thursday evening.

One of the speakers from the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Michael Hilliard, who retired as a major after a 27-year career on the Baltimore, Maryland, police force, said people trained to respond to mental health and substance abuse issues can do a much better job of responding to many calls than police officers can.

“When I joined the force in 1975,” Hilliard said, “I was assigned to a challenging African-American neighborhood. And when I walked into somebody’s house wearing a blue suit and a gun, there wasn’t necessarily the expectation that good things were going to happen because I was there.”

Amos Irwin.

LEAP Program Director Amos Irwin said studies of a variety of major cities indicate that between 20% and 38% of 911 calls could be handled by community responders, while another 15% to 33% could be handled by what the group describes as “administrative alternatives.”

That, he said, would leave between 29% and 62% of calls that would require a police response.

Irwin stressed that with the wide variation in call types from city to city, a program would have to be tailored to the individual needs of a particular community.

Lionel King.

Lionel King, a program specialist with LEAP with a background in mental health treatment, said that the optimal response for many calls involving mental health and quality of life issues would be from unarmed community responders.

“Those calls need a response,” King said, “but don’t need armed police.”

He referred to the long-running CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, and similar programs in other cities as examples of success.

He cited his experience before joining LEAP as an investigator with the Department of Children and Family Services in New Orleans where he frequently had to go into a family’s home in the middle of the night to tell parents that he needed to remove their children from the home.

“I had to do it without a gun, without police backup most of the time — with just my ability to deescalate, my badge and a clipboard,” King said.

He said the CAHOOTS program has operated 30 years and has never had a casualty or injury during a call. Olympia, Washington, and Denver, Colorado, have been running such programs for several years with zero safety issues, he added.

Some residents at the meeting were skeptical of those claims.

Brenda Grier, a retired social worker, said, “All types of disturbances, domestic violence situations are much more serious today. There’s no way you’d be able to go into the black community if you don’t have a law officer there.”

“You’re dealing with different types of people today, not the people you in the past had to deal with,” Grier added.

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) said Evanston has recently started to implement the beginnings of an alternative response model with Trilogy Behavioral Health providing emergency response to mental health issues.

The Trilogy program, funded by a state grant operates only on limited hours now, but is expect to expand to 24/7 operation by this summer.

The Trilogy program also is not yet integrated with the city’s 911 system. To reach Trilogy’s hotline number, residents now need to call 800-322-8400.

Burns said the city is also working to establish a “Living Room” program that would provide an alternative to the hospital emergency room for people suffering mental health crises to receive emergency care.

Burns is on the mayor’s Reimagining Public Safety task force that’s seeking to develop more comprehensive reforms for such issues.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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