Sep 21 2021

Public Safety Agencies Explore Tech to Partner with Social Services

Washington, D.C., dispatches behavioral health specialists to handle noncrisis calls.

In Washington, D.C., social workers are answering some emergency calls. Other cities are also deploying social workers, homelessness specialists and violence prevention coordinators to respond to certain 911 calls.

“We know from conservative estimates that there are at least 240 million 911 calls made every single year,” says Rebecca Neusteter, executive director of the University of Chicago Health Lab, which researches public policy issues. “The majority of these do not relate to crimes in progress, or what we would describe as an emergent public safety or health crisis. About 25 percent or less of the calls really represent a public safety challenge.”

Around the nation, police departments are looking to leverage community partners to help field requests for service when public safety is not directly at risk. Technology can play a key role in supporting these efforts.

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D.C. Focuses on Behavioral Health Support for Service Calls

In the nation’s capital, police receive about 90 calls a day that relate to behavioral health incidents rather than criminal concerns. Under an initiative launched this spring, about a third of those are being dispatched to behavioral health professionals rather than to police officers.

“Say a person calls about their teenage son who is not violent at all: They just changed his medication and now they’re worried because they’re seeing some different behavior. It may be better to not send the police on that,” says Cleo Subido, interim director of the city’s Office of Unified Communications.

Having a cop on the scene could raise the tension, making a bad situation worse. “Maybe this is a person who sees police and uniforms as something of a threat. A police response could cause that person — who maybe wasn’t violent in the first place — to now become violent,” Subido says.

In order to drive an alternate response, police departments need new ways to communicate with community partners. In the district, the department has used technology tools to build a seamless handoff between 911 and mental health experts.

“Our technology team built an interface with our Department of Behavioral Health, a handshake with our computer-aided dispatch system, so that when I transfer a call over to their helpline, they will get the information that I’ve already acquired from the caller,” Subido says. “The Department of Behavioral Health also uses their own internal database so that if they have multiple contacts with the same person, they can see what worked last time.”

Use Cases Illustrate Alternative Approaches for Public Safety

Experts point to a range of possible instances when an alternative response might be appropriate.

Mental health tops the list. Neighbors may see someone acting erratically, or family members may have concerns about an individual who is struggling. If there’s no imminent emergency, such calls can be fielded by behavioral health specialists.

In addition, Neusteter points to other likely scenarios:

  • Physical health: “If it doesn’t seem like somebody is in cardiac arrest or that there’s an emergent medical threat, there have been examples in which nonambulatory transportation is dispatched,” Neusteter says. “Then, an outpatient appointment is made for somebody to see a clinician quickly. That bypasses the emergency department and emergency crisis response.”
  • Domestic issues: “These represent incidents like fights between family members, fights between neighbors, noise complaints, etc.,” she says. “These are issues in which there are fundamental challenges around conflict resolution, individuals who either are fearful or unable to have conversations in order to get their needs met.” Community workers outside the public safety arena may be better suited to handle those calls.
  • Community awareness: “We can think about alarm calls: An alarm goes off and we don’t necessarily need to send a police response, but we need to understand what’s going on,” she says. “There other ways in which neighborhoods and community residents may be able to help verify whether or not there’s a problem that warrants police response. That’s a less-expensive form of response and it means we aren’t potentially escalating an issue by immediately dispatching the police.”

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Video and Data Analysis Address Risks for Responders

Several key technologies could help to support efforts by police to offload calls that don’t require a law enforcement response.

IDC Worldwide Research Vice President for Public Safety Alison Brooks points to video as a possible enabler. Police could, for example, use a livestream to give mental health professionals eyes on a scene — a potentially safer way of accessing those insights.

“In the traditional ride-along with mental health support, you’re putting that person in the police car and possibly exposing them to an element of danger,” Brooks says. With a video consultation, police can pull in the experts without putting them at risk.

Data analytics may also play a role in driving alternative responses by helping law enforcement understand which approaches work best for different types of calls. “You can use data to shift the response models so that the right people are actually intervening at the right time, including the social services folks,” Brooks says.

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Subido says the district is using such tools in its efforts. “With data analytics, we can start to see: If we would have screened for this or that, would it have been a safer response?” she says. “What are the questions we could ask that help us to know whether sending the Department of Behavioral Health is the right response?”

This approach already is yielding results in police departments nationwide. “Communities that have become analytical with their data and changed their responses have demonstrated significant reductions in calls for service and enormous revenue savings,” says Brandon Kooi, a professor of criminal justice at Aurora University in Illinois.

Together with data analytics, visualization tools help police drive a more effective response.

“The data has to tell a story, and that story will either be understood or not understood based on how it’s presented,” Subido says. “We are using Tableau for visualization so that as a call comes in, we can acquire data, enter it into the database and pull reports based on a timeline. As this effort progresses, it will be important that our data folks are really able to tell that story visually.”

RELATED: Public safety agencies are using tech to evolve their noncrisis responses.

Integration of Command Center Capabilities Yields Results

Some are looking to modernized call center and data center capabilities to help create a seamless workflow between police emergency response and community partners. For example, a modernized system can synthesize digital data — whether that’s on somebody’s cell phone, in video footage of something that’s happening on the scene or on social media feeds.

Cleo Subido, Interim Director, Office of Unified Communications, Washington, D.C.
With data analytics, we can start to see: If we would have screened for this or that, would it have been a safer response?”

Cleo Subido Interim Director, Office of Unified Communications, Washington, D.C.

“In an emergency operations center or a real-time crime center, you have to be able to take all of those disparate and growing new data sources and filter them and ingest them,” Brooks says. “If you can do that, then you’re not inundating people with noise. You’re actually providing them with a means to get to some sort of knowledge.”

Departments can then go a step further, integrating their data center operations with those of partner agencies. This can inform alternative responses, giving police a fuller understanding of the context for emergency calls.

“I have the CAD system, where I can put the address in and I can see that last time we sent the Department of Behavioral Health out there and had a problem,” Subido says. “I might decide this requires a police response, or I might send it to DBH, but I will let them know what happened last time.”

Taken together, all these technologies can help ease the burden on overworked and overwhelmed police departments. Experts say that makes sense from a budgeting perspective, allowing police to make better use of their resources, and they say it’s just good public policy.

“Most law enforcement will say that they have been trying to not respond to mental health or addiction issues for 30 years now, that they’re the wrong tool for the challenge that they’re confronting,” Brooks says. “If you’re sending out police to respond to those types of social issues, then you’re criminalizing behavior where it doesn’t need to be criminalized.”