Durham’s police force has a less contentious relationship with the city’s residents than others in the Triangle do, but last summer still saw a strong Black Lives Matter protest presence that precipitated reflection from government officials. The creation of the new Durham Community Safety Department that City Manager Wanda Page announced last May is one example of the tangible outcomes of this reflection.

Put simply, the Durham Community Safety Department will work to respond to crises and 911 calls without law enforcement officers, and, instead, with mental health professionals and social workers.

The department is in its fledgling stages and still mostly unstaffed. But Ryan Smith, its new director who previously led the city of Durham’s innovation team, says he has high expectations for the department and that it’s symbolic for Durham’s future in community-led criminal justice efforts. 

“The ways that I have approached problem solving are highly collaborative, people-centered, equity-oriented, data-driven, and trauma-informed,” Smith says. “I want to bring those values to this department and to bring people together.”

In 2019, Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of Durham nonprofits dedicated to divesting from policing and prisons, lobbied for a city-county-Durham Public Schools joint Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. The city voted yes, but the county and the Durham school board did not support the effort as readily.

Then COVID-19 hit, and last June saw a resurgence of police protests across the Triangle and the nation.

“It took the county a bit longer to get on board, but after last year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a lot more interest in this work, and so we established the task force and negotiated the terms for it,” Mayor Steve Schewel says. 

The task force was officially announced last December and is composed of two co-chairs, Marcia Owens and Xavier Cason, and 15 other members from all three governing bodies. Cason previously served on the DPS board and as director of community schools and school transformation for the DPS Foundation and helped write the task force’s bylaws. Owens served as executive director for The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and founder of Restorative Justice Durham.

The task force is split into four roundtable discussion groups: school resource officers; criminal legal system (courts and incarceration); violence interruption/de-escalation; and 911 responses/crisis intervention. 

“This is a place for us to come together and ask ‘What if?’ questions. That’s very, very rare to have the space to do that and be inventive, ” Cason says. 

Owens and Cason say these first months have been about building community among those within the task force. Without closeness, understanding, and clear guidelines, the members say they will be unable to reach clear recommendations for community-based prevention and intervention programs.

“[Owens] and I are really focused on making sure that everybody involved in this task force digs down to the root of the harm and gets the stories of those who have been harmed,” Cason says.

The task force is also utilizing information from a research project the city conducted with RTI last August. The project did an in-depth analysis of 911 calls between 2017 and 2020 and identified a number of 911 call types that could be responded to without an armed officer, including mental or behavioral health needs, traffic incidents, and quality-of-life issues. 

“Which calls can we respond to with someone who does not have a gun and a badge? Where can you have a mental health worker come or traffic stops not made by police so as to not lead to unnecessary confrontation?” Schewel asks. 

The department will consider the task force’s recommendations once submitted. According to Smith, the department will begin with 15 positions, five of which are pulled from five vacant police department positions. The Durham City Council has also frozen 15 vacant positions in the police department that, after later evaluation, may be transferred to the department if they are needed.

These staff members, once hired, will split into positions working on the department’s three main priorities this year. 

First, the department will pilot multiple alternative response models by trained civilian responders to a subset of 911 calls, focused on sending the right response to specific community needs. Second, some staff will work directly with the Community Task Force and utilize their recommendations. Third, some staff will provide oversight to the department’s contracts and investments, including Bull City United’s violence interrupter program, in which the city has invested $930,000.

“Knowing that we have a lot of people who are going to be thinking creatively about this work and engaging deeply with our community, that gives me added reason for confidence that we’ll be able to do something good,” Smith says.

Smith says the department is looking at programs across the country for guidance, including Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, and Denver’s STAR program, both of which also use community-based models of intervention to address quality-of-life issues within the cities. He says Denver’s program, regarded as a success, is one of the best examples for Durham to look at and emulate. After six months of the STAR program, the team responded to 748 calls, none of which required assistance from police nor ended in arrest. 

Durham will start small, likely with a kind of mobile crisis response team that includes a team of skilled professionals, as Denver did, Smith said. Since Durham’s initial resources and personnel will only support small pilots, learning from and analyzing these analogous programs around the country is a top priority.

“It’s very promising, and it’s an example of what we are really committed to do,” Smith said. 

There are naysayers out there, though. Some fear that diverting positions away from police (though it is only 1 percent of the police staff) might exacerbate Durham’s gun violence. Smith, Schewel, and other city officials want to set the record straight on some misconceptions.

For one, employees of the Community Safety Department will not respond to violent crime, only to very specific, quality-of-life related calls, such as homelessness, addiction, mental health struggles, and the like. Schewel says that police officers he has spoken to are in favor of the task force and the alternative responses and that they say they think the program will make the city safer. 

“I’ve ridden with police many times, and most of the things they respond to are not related to gun violence or violent crime,” Schewel says. “Every time one of those calls comes in, it takes time away from the job that they want to do, that they are trained to do, and that we want them to do, which is to solve crime and protect the community from violence.”  

Smith emphasizes that these pilots have not begun yet because the sensitive nature of community safety requires sensitive care. He has high hopes, but realistic goals, he says, and the department will check back in with the city in six months. With time, he thinks the program can expand to include co-responses with police and other more expansive practices. 

“I feel pressure in the very best way; this is important work that is work that we need to deliver on,” Smith says. “I feel full support from city leadership to take the time that we need to, to plan and to do it all with a real sense of purpose.”

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