What happens when dialing 9-1-1 doesn’t involve criminal activity? Traditionally, overburdened and shrinking law enforcement agencies are the first responders to calls involving complex social issues like homelessness, mental health crises, and substance abuse. It’s a dual role that demands a balance of authority and compassion, and for the past 50 years, North Carolina has pioneered crisis-response innovations that are taking root across the nation. 

On average, 9-1-1 receives approximately 240 million calls annually, and about 50 million of those relate to mental health or substance abuse crises. Post-pandemic, there’s been a surge in alternative crisis calls, and communities are looking for solutions. In fact, 14 out of 20 of the most populous cities in the US operate some form of alternative crisis response, like the innovative program started in 1973 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

One of the first innovative alternative responder programs in the nation, Chapel Hill Police Department’s Crisis Unit is a pioneer and national model that pairs officers with a dedicated group of individuals in a 24-hour emergency response team helping local citizens in times of crisis while allowing law enforcement to focus on public safety. 

In a 2022 survey, 53% of North Carolina police departments had some type of co-response program in place and 78% utilized community partnerships. Police departments in Chapel Hill, Durham, Buncombe County, and Greenville provide on-site emergency assistance alongside officers in crisis situations, while Durham operates a Crisis Intervention Team, where officers and clinicians collaborate to connect individuals in crisis with appropriate social services. 

After some political back and forth, support from the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police helped convince many conservative legislators that collaborations can promote public safety. Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 140 / SL 2023-52 which allows trained civilian city employees to respond to minor car accidents.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Faircloth, is also a former police chief. He told WRAL, “Virtually every law enforcement agency is losing people, losing employees, or failing to fill vacancies they have. So, they’re looking for ways to keep enough action on the street.”  

Complementing these programs, our state’s 9-8-8 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline counselors answered 73,465 contacts for help between July 2022 and June 2023, a free call without immediately involving law enforcement officers. As public awareness improves, this allows law enforcement more time for patrolling, responding to violent calls, and proactive public safety measures.  

Sustaining these programs is crucial but doesn’t come cheap, and it is critical they never come at the expense of existing law enforcement resources. Utilizing private foundation grants, partnering with non-profits, and leveraging local, state, and federal funding opportunities can help fund these alternative responses that give departments the help they need and create a pipeline of trained staff to continue their operations. 

Many North Carolina police departments partner with local universities to offset the costs of housing full-time alternative response staff, and 23 western counties — including Buncombe, Cherokee, and Jackson — have partnered with Western North Carolina University’s Smoky Mountain LME/MCO for mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services.  

A collaborative case study of statewide programs, through the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, created the Alternative Responder Project, providing best practices and recommendations. In Fall of 2023, the next phase of the project will examine data-based program evaluations for stakeholders’ and legislators’ considerations. 

North Carolina is building on the momentum of alternative response programs as a complement to the work of law enforcement. Trained crisis-response professionals can deescalate a crisis and provide resources to individuals in distress when public safety is not at issue; our overcrowded jails and prisons can make room for violent criminals; and our law enforcement officers can stay focused on the job they do best — keeping our families and neighborhoods safe.

This commentary was originally published in The Carolina Journal.