It’s a brisk November afternoon and an ocean blue Chrysler Town and Country minivan, lovingly dubbed the “Pacificare,” prowls across Durham. Inside the Pacificare is a loaded box of snacks (veggie straws, Pirate’s Booty cheese puffs, Bumble Bee “chicken on the run” cracker snacks), a police dispatch radio, ample Narcan, and four city workers wearing soft gray fleeces stitched with the words “Compassionate Care Response” on the back. 

There’s also a man in the minivan’s middle row, cigarette tucked behind his ear, drunk as two skunks, letting out a spirited “Ayyyeeeee, I’m riding with the HEART police.”

“Well, we’re actually not the police,” clinician Cassaundra Martinez says. 

“Yeahhhh, I’m riding with the HEART police,” the man says, fidgeting with his seat belt. There’s a moment of silence. “I appreciate y’all though. Thank you.”

Durham’s HEART program is growing up fast. Not quite a household name, hence the earlier misidentification as police, but well known enough that HEART employees are often approached out and about on the job, likely a result of Have a HEART Durham’s intensive yard sign campaign earlier this year.

HEART’s origins trace to 2019 when Durham’s then police chief, CJ Davis, proposed adding 72 officers to the city’s police force. Local organizing groups, including Durham Beyond Policing and the Durham chapter of BYP 100, successfully blocked the proposition and helped convince the city to launch the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force (CSWTF). Starting in 2021, the task force operated for two and a half years, seeking, according to its final report, to “identify proactive, community-based approaches to safety and wellness as alternatives to policing and the criminal legal system.”

HEART was born out of the CSWTF’s crisis response focus area, which conducted canvassing, virtual town halls, and community listening sessions across Durham. HEART launched under the city’s Community Safety Department as a pilot program in June 2022 with a 20-person staff. As reported in a deep dive by The Assembly, HEART headed into the city’s budget negotiations this past summer with strong political backing and an expectation of expansion. 

And that expansion came, giving HEART the capacity for 50 employees across its four units: crisis call diversion, community response teams (CRT), care navigators, and co-response teams. 

 “The pace and the depth and the public support with which this holistic community safety has grown is astonishing,” says Manju Rajendran, a Durham Beyond Policing and CSWTF member. “We feel really proud and grateful.” 

HEART is at a crucial point in the program’s history. It recently expanded its service area to cover all of Durham, and upped its operating hours to 12 hours a day (nine a.m. to nine p.m.), seven days a week. 

“I feel good about where we’re at with the expansion,” says Community Safety Department director Ryan Smith. “Once we’re fully staffed, we’ll be extending the shifts to cover till midnight.”

Smith’s office sports a bookshelf and a whiteboard laden with multicolored Post-it notes. A cork board in the hallway just outside has a map of the United States, with color-coded pins—purple for “cities we’re learning from” and green for “cities learning from us”—denoting the increasing numbers of municipalities across the country exploring new methods of community safety. 

The freshness and curiosity of a program that’s going from zero to 50 employees in under two years is well on display. As well as Post-its, large sheets of paper noting aspirations and best practices line the department’s walls. 

Social worker Stevie Schlessman and peer support specialist Yolanda Dawson stand next to a set of windows facing City Hall Plaza and conduct their first ever morning meeting, under the guidance of HEART shift supervisor Whitney Alston. The sense of treading on new ground brings a level of optimism and sense of imagination that’s not often found in a government workplace.

“It’s exciting to meet people where they are in the world instead of just in an institutional setting, when they’re at their lowest point,” Dawson says. “It’s very low- barrier.”

Schlessman nods. “It’s cool not having to give people care at a hospital, or working around Medicaid billing just to help someone,” Schlessman says.

The first call of the day comes in—a welfare check. There’s concern about an elderly man, usually communicative, who’s fallen out of touch. His spouse is having a medical emergency, and he’s been unresponsive.

“Welfare checks are the most unpredictable. You’ll never know if you’ll find someone in crisis or if everything’s just fine. They’re gray calls,” Martinez says. 

Schlessman starts the van, and Dawson rides shotgun. Martinez and Alston buckle up to supervise. Schlessman and Dawson are two-thirds of a CRT team. The missing piece is an EMT, a current vacancy that HEART is expecting to fill, having just switched the hiring process from going through the county to in-house. 

The welfare check takes place in a sunny Durham suburb. An American flag sways over a nearby porch, and fallen leaves give the responders’ footsteps a nice crunch. The HEART team meets the man on his front steps, who assures them that everything is well. He’s been overwhelmed and is just now pulling on a jacket and heading out to his spouse. 

Dawson marks the call as closed on the team’s iPad, which then processes through Durham’s computer aided dispatch system. This data will end up on the HEART’s public dashboard, which breaks down each of the HEART unit’s call responses. On a day in early November, HEART has responded to 11,107 calls across its four departments since June 28, 2022. 

HEART’s early days are being intimately scrutinized, with RTI International and Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity both tracking the units’ metrics. If HEART hopes to receive future funding for an around-the-clock expansion or serve as a beacon for other programs around the country, it’ll need to back up its arguments for effectiveness with hard data. 

“This transparency is important internally and for the residents of Durham to show that the services we’re delivering are done well,” says Anise Vance, assistant director of the Community Safety Department. “The more we do this and show that we can do this well, the more we’re acting as building blocks for other cities around the country that want to do similar programs.”

The team has just settled into the Pacificare when they receive their second call of the day. A man is inebriated outside of a local business and refusing to leave. Dawson and Schlessman find him sitting on the curb and talk him down from “I’m going to jail regardless” to accepting a safe ride away from the gas station. It’s the sort of scenario—unhoused citizen, mental health crisis—that advocates for programs like HEART cite as too often ending violently at the hands of police. Martinez sees HEART responders as being able to walk into tense situations with a level of approachability not associated with law enforcement.

“Going to, say, a homeless encampment with only only a [HEART] T-shirt and some hygiene kits and granola bars can feel much friendlier than showing up in a police uniform,” Martinez says. “It carries less expectations.”

With the safe ride completed, the HEART team receives its third dispatch—a suicide threat, phoned in by a concerned medical provider regarding an at-risk patient. 

Schlessman plugs in the coordinates, and the Pacificare is back on the road. Over the course of the afternoon the team traverses a wide spread of neighborhoods and zip codes. Crisscrossing the city’s map gets tiring. In an effort to streamline this process, HEART is partnering with Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) to add two informal substations in DPR offices in north and south Durham. 

The suicide risk check-in directs the team to an empty apartment. After a back-and-forth with the medical provider who called, and no alternative addresses found, the call is marked as closed, and the team heads back to city hall to regroup. 

The team splits once at city hall, some to the restroom, some for a mid-shift snack. It’s a little after three o’clock, dead center of the universal midafternoon slump, but the office is still humming. Administrative specialist Cherine Robinson sits at the front desk, juggling work duties with picking out just the right greeting plant. Robinson reflects on the program’s significance, to herself personally and to Durham.

“You know, I used to tell [the responders] when they’d leave for the day to be safe out there saving the world,” Robinson says. “Because none of us on our own can save the whole world. But, say, if you help stop someone from killing themselves, then you saved their whole world. And the world of every person that loves that person.”

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