Raleigh business owners painted a dramatic picture of a crime-ridden downtown last month at a Raleigh committee meeting, recounting experiences of harassment, verbal and physical threats, and witnessing drug use outside their storefronts.
Public safety downtown and on Glenwood South was the subject of debate at Raleigh’s Safe, Vibrant and Healthy Communities committee meeting on September 26. The meeting opened with a presentation by Bill King, CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
The area around Moore Square has seen a recent spike in panhandling from people experiencing homelessness, as well as harassment from people who may be in crisis or experiencing mental illness, King reported.
These claims were backed by anecdotes from nearby business owners, many of whom said they and their employees were being harassed on a near-daily basis. Some reported seeing used needles or human waste outside their doors, while others recounted having knives drawn on them.
Additionally, King said, there has been a spike in criminal behavior such as trespassing, vandalism, drug deals, and solicitation, especially around the GoRaleigh bus station.
Police Chief Estella Patterson doubled down on these claims, saying that in the last few weeks of September, Raleigh police have responded to offenses around the Transit Mall including illegal drug possession, illegal firearm possession, ABC violations, disorderly conduct, and trespassing.
Whether or not downtown Raleigh is seeing a true, sustained increase in this type of crime is debatable, according to Ben Grunwald, a law professor at Duke University.
Although Patterson presented some data showing increases in homicide, aggravated assault, and disorderly conduct in 2023 over last year, “this kind of inter-year change may be completely typical of these neighborhoods,” Grunwald says.
“(C)rime statistics are pretty erratic over small periods of time in small neighborhoods,” he added.
Many business owners were adamant in their calls for an increased police presence and even the addition of private security in the downtown area. King also proposed more security, including an expanded camera network and private patrols in “hot spots.”
Patterson provided a similar assessment, saying the Raleigh Police Department plans to add officers to its transit unit, establish a full-time bicycle squad, and explore measures to prevent loitering in the bus station.
Both were careful to note that more social services are also needed in the area, including social workers who can help people dealing with homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness.
“Social services and law enforcement are both needed,” King said. “These types of issues can’t rely on one or the other, you’ve got to have both of those things working together.”
Activists, however, are concerned policing will become the priority. They say that is not the answer. During a public comment period, several people stepped up to argue that Raleigh needs to spend more time exploring alternative solutions and less time incarcerating people in need.
Octavia Rainey, a regular advocate for Raleigh’s Black community, said she had strong concerns about hiring private security to monitor the GoRaleigh station next to Moore Square. She questioned whether private security officers would be thoroughly trained or wearing body cameras while on patrol.
“Raleigh has really grown. And with growth, comes crime. So don’t blame all of this on Black people who catch the bus,” Rainey said. “The city is not taking care of the homeless. You need a mental health facility where they can go and stay in Raleigh.”
More services such as shelters, mental health care and drug rehabilitation are needed downtown, according to Jaelyn Miller, a community lawyering fellow with nonprofit Emancipate NC. Right now, when someone has a mental health crisis in public, “we only have one response … they go to jail or they go to the emergency department,” she says.
“When you only have two solutions, you end up funneling everyone into one of two solutions, even though the problem is a spectrum of possibilities,” Miller says. “These are really crimes of homelessness, are crimes of poverty, are crimes of mental illness or crimes of substance abuse. [Traditional policing] results in a cycle of folks being put in jails and emergency departments and then coming right back out again.”
What if Raleigh had a HEART?
Miller is a part of a coalition of state and county organizations—including Forward Justice and the ACLU—that has long petitioned the Raleigh City Council to create a HEART unit, or an “alternative crisis response unit” like the one in Durham.
A HEART unit sends unarmed mental health professionals to respond to nonviolent 911 calls, including calls that may involve someone having a mental health crisis. In Durham, nonviolent calls are dealt with by the unit’s community response team (made up of clinicians), while calls that may pose a greater safety risk are dealt with by a co-response team (which pairs clinicians with police officers).
Community response teams have been dispatched to about 150 calls in downtown Durham since the beginning of this year, according to the city’s online data hub. About 50 were for HEART assistance generally, while other callers reported trespassing, mental health crises, or people posing a nuisance or appearing intoxicated.
Co-response teams have been dispatched to deal with about 80 calls in the city center so far, responding to reports of trespassing, disturbances, and requests for involuntary commitment.
Raleigh’s ACORNS unit, which attaches social workers to certain calls to respond alongside police officers, does some of the same things Durham’s HEART unit does. Between August 7 and September 15 (about six weeks), the ACORNS unit responded to eight calls in the downtown and Glenwood South area, according to RPD. Social workers provided clothing, referred people to housing options, and offered help with access to substance abuse and mental health treatment.
“Our ACORNS unit works with contacts over time to ensure they obtain the appropriate services needed and provide continuous follow-up,” an RPD representative wrote in an email.
But the city is missing a far bigger opportunity to reduce the kind of crime business owners are seeing in downtown, Miller argues. In that same six-week time period, Durham’s HEART unit responded to 51 calls for service in the city center.
“There are two major issues with ACORNS, one is that it’s under the police department, and two, it’s not dispatched directly from 911,” Miller says. “[Clinicians] are only on scene through referrals from officers. You’re still draining resources and you’re still meeting these folks with an armed response that can escalate the situation.”
By dispatching the ACORNS unit or other non-police responders directly through the 911 center, social workers can respond to more calls and connect more people with the resources they need. By establishing an alternative response unit independent of the RPD, officers will also be freed up to respond to calls about violent crime, Miller says.
An unarmed response team, alongside ACORN’s co-response model, would “tremendously cut down on a lot of these incidents [downtown],” Miller argues. If people experiencing drug addiction are able to get help, it will cut down on drug use and drug deals, she says. Housing unsheltered people could cut down on panhandling. Connecting people to mental health services might prevent some incidents of harassment or threats.
“These folks are not getting help, so they’re continuing to have issues,” Miller says. “Now they’ve just changed the locations of where they show those issues.”
Homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health have been problems in Raleigh for a while, she adds, and are now reaching a boiling point.
“The goal with HEART is to be able to address the root cause and not the symptoms,” Miller says. “Instead of continuing to put them in the cycle that ultimately results in them losing things like Medicaid because of criminal charges, we are proposing a solution.”Raleigh-Coalitions-Alternative-Response-Unit-Proposal
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