Nearly ¼ of the 919 people lethally shot by police officers in the United States during the year 2021 have had a known mental illness. Regrettably, what could have been avoided by means of adequate training and resources has developed into a major issue within the United States, with a plethora of even more shocking rates on police brutality emerging daily. The police department in Santa Fe, New Mexico seems to have realized this before everyone else, and has responded to such concerns by building a program known as the “Alternative Response Unit” to test a different approach on policing, which is more adept to the needs of the community. Partnering with the local fire department, the program is designed with the homeless and mentally ill population in mind, sending out teams composed of a police officer, paramedic, and a social worker, with a caseworker behind the scenes in the office, all trained in crisis intervention for low-threat calls.
Years in the making, the Alternative Response Unit (ARU) has been developed to foster trust in law enforcement and redefine the role of policing in the community. Research found that in Santa Fe, nearly 18% of calls to emergency services consisted of the same 250 people, often over matters of mental health, shelter, and health care services. In situations like these, it is much more appropriate for a team trained in the ways to help at-risk individuals to arrive at the scene rather than a traditional police officer. This way, the team can provide actual guidance and support to the members of the community through the means of the social workers and caseworkers, while also having medical assistance and security on hand with the paramedic and police officer.
The ARU was officially launched in Santa Fe on May 4, 2021, and has since been an immense community success. It currently runs three days a week, with intentions to shift up to four, and has a total cost of about $2 million to run. While it may sound expensive, this cost is drastically lower than the $3.4 million used the years prior to combatting homelessness in the city. Hence, this program is a more calculated approach to allocating money efficiently and effectively to promote community wellbeing. During the first period of its implementation, from May 4 – July 19, there were 226 incidents where the ARU was sent to the scene instead of a traditional alternative over a total of 26 days. Since it is still too young to have long-term accurate data, the program’s success rates are in the process of being analyzed through the number of patients being connected with the services they need, like rehabilitation programs and mental health care. It is a drastic change from the traditional police call center route, where only armed officers would arrive at the scene of low-threat cases and handle the situation untrained to the sensitivities of the homeless and mentally- ill. The community response has been very positive towards the new initiative, with the actual citizens working with the ARU expressing their gratitude for the support that they never had received from a transitional officer. Since the actual goal of the program is to help the at-risk population in Santa Fe, this support is expressed through aid in finding housing, jobs, rehabilitation centers, and more for those who want it.
Other cities around the United States are following suit in implementing such Alternative Response Programs in their own local police forces. Louisville, Kentucky, for example, is considering sending out teams of “community responders” starting in December to better help the mentally ill and victims of substance abuse in the community. Madison, Wisconsin also began their own respective program back in September. The initiative, known as the Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES), is designed to be a non-law enforcement response team for non-violent behavioral health emergency calls. Essentially, the face of emergency responders is drastically changing nationwide. What once was solely the domain of law-enforcement officers is now moving towards a balance between them and specially trained teams for non-violent calls.
Such a nationwide initiative taking effect across the US forces us to question what the future of policing and emergency responders will look like. While these programs are still young, the establishment of alternative response units in major US cities is having a sort of ripple effect nationwide. However true that only data will give an accurate snapshot of the results of such programs, the short-term benefits seem to be plentiful, especially in terms of community attitude towards law enforcement. Moving forwards, it will be vital for the people to hold accountable such programs to ensure that they are upholding the values and concerns on which they were founded. That being said, the initiative to transform the methods of policing in a country where police brutality is a major issue is quite revolutionary. The establishment of alternative response units and other programs as such are a defining moment in US history, as for once, it feels as if the voices of the minority are being heard.
Instead of penalizing those who deal with mental health issues, society should work towards implementing more measures such as the ARU in order to augment empathy and understanding towards a community so often forced to remain silent about their struggles. Such initiatives will make more of a difference than often realized, as support towards marginalized communities does much more for the advancement of society than behavior that ignores the existence of their struggles. Promoting conversation on taboo topics not only yields incredible results for the greater goal, but it makes people feel less alone in their problems, and as we have seen in Santa Fe, creates concrete change. Maybe instead of isolating members of society who may differ from us, we can work towards creating a society of inclusion and empathy, as no one chooses their own hurt.