Councillors propose ‘crisis response system’ for non-violent 911 calls

Three city councillors want Boston to explore a new “crisis response” system that would divert non-violent, emergency calls away from the Boston Police Department in favor of “a more holistic public safety infrastructure integrated with public health.”

Michelle Wu, Julia Mejia, and Lydia Edwards introduced the proposal last Wednesday that calls for an unarmed “Community Safety Crisis Response System.”

Edwards said the legislation was not meant to start a “replace the police” conversation. “This is about structural change, how we keep people safe, and how we can increase trust in our government. National polling shows that across party lines, people want options when it comes to public safety,” she said, adding:

“This could be useful when, say for example, there’s a crowd of young people making too much noise or setting off firecrackers in a park. Or if there’s a senior who might have wandered off or there’s a person with mental issues or a homeless individual who needs help.”

For her part, Wu said, “As we are having a conversation about how to structure our public safety and public health infrastructure in Boston, we need to move toward responsiveness to the voices that have been crying out and wanting both services delivered in a safe and effective way.

“This means that someone from a background of mental health expertise, substance abuse counseling, social work, or community outreach would be deployed instead,” she said. “The experience from the other cities that have enacted this have shown that it not only delivers better outcomes for residents, but also has saved money as well because they are delivering the most efficient resource to meet the need,” said Wu.  

Mejia told the Reporter on Friday that the proposal is about providing “a step towards looking at our options to ensure that we’re sending mental health professionals and people that have the skills and are trained to help where they are needed,” she said.  “We’re creating a framework for what a community-centered approach looks like.”

She said she has hosted virtual town halls with activists and residents suggesting alternate test pilots meant to engage the community on enforcement and accountability.  

“A lot of the things that I’ve been hearing from constituents are about using alternative ways for us to think about engaging the community on enforcement measures and studying accountability metrics and how we train and educate,” Mejia said.

“I’d also been tagged in several social media posts in regards to the fireworks in the city. People didn’t feel like calling the police is the right approach and a lot of people are asking for a community-based approach that they can be involved in,” she added.

The ordinance specifically calls for the city to develop within 90 days a systemic community safety crisis-response plan for non-violent emergency calls to “directly connect people in need to city or community-based service providers and replace law enforcement presence in nonviolent, non-criminal situations with a range of unarmed service providers.”

According to the proposal, this would include health care professionals, mental health workers, workers specializing in outreach to residents experiencing homelessness, and other unarmed professionals with specialized training.