In June 2022, Durham launched its first-ever slate of community safety pilot programs, which operate under the name HEART—“Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams”—and dispatch unarmed first responders or mental health clinicians, instead of law enforcement, in response to nonviolent 911 calls.

The programs are working as intended, according to data from the Community Safety Department. HEART teams have felt safe during 99% of in-person interactions and their written reports speak to the success of the crisis intervention model.

With more funding, though, HEART—which is staffed by fewer than 20 people and operates in a 15-mile region of Durham during limited hours—could have a bigger reach.

Since June, Durham’s 911 center has received 23,000 calls that warranted a community safety response. With their current staffing and geographic constraints, the HEART programs have been able to address about one-fifth of them.

In efforts to close the gap, more than 900 Durham residents have signed a petition imploring the mayor and council members to expand HEART’s funding in the 2023-24 budget. 

The petition, which was initiated by local activist group Durham Beyond Policing, emphasizes that Durham residents “should have the option to access HEART from any zip code and for a wide variety of situations.”

“We need 24-hour access because we can’t program crises,” the petition reads. “Why not use the resources we have to prevent harm and violence? If people in the community get the immediate care and follow-up they need, we are less likely to hurt others or ourselves.”

At the city council’s budget retreat on March 2, a number of council members expressed a desire to expand funding for the HEART programs. Council member Monique Holsey-Hyman said she would like to see a stronger case management component that allows teams to “stay with the family a little longer.”

Based on reports from HEART members, follow-up visits are an essential element of crisis intervention: They’re not only beneficial for aiding people on the road to recovery, but they also help to build trust before offering further assistance.

“Predating HEART’s inception, a neighbor had been frequently calling 911 due to drug-induced paranoia, where he would report that there were people in his house,” one team member wrote in a fall report. “Over time, the neighbor began to trust HEART responders, who would listen and validate him and sometimes discuss resources, including NA meetings.”

“Eventually,” the report continues, “the neighbor identified that he was ready to seek help. HEART supported him in an application for a substance use rehab, working with him to acquire funding to attend and submitting a referral on his behalf. The neighbor was accepted into the program, and HEART’s hope is that he will have success there and maintain his sobriety.”

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