News Flash

City of Durham News

Posted on: June 25, 2021

City Manager Wanda Page on New Community Safety Department

City Manager Wanda Page on New Community Safety Department

On July 1, the City’s new Community Safety Department will officially begin its work, with much of the summer and fall devoted to hiring staff and planning pilot programs that will explore new approaches to safety. In six months, an update will be made to City Council on the pilots and any additional resources needed to advance these plans.

In this video, City Manager Page explains the purpose of the department and what it will focus on in its first year. 

Watch the video or read the transcript below to learn more:

Video Transcript

Introduction

I’m City Manager Wanda Page and I’m here to share more information about the new Community Safety Department, recently approved by City Council.  

On July 1, this new department will officially begin its work, and I want to take a few minutes to explain why and what it will focus on in its first year.

Community Safety Department Purpose

The purpose of this department is to enhance our existing public safety efforts by finding different ways to address issues that don’t necessarily need a law enforcement response.   

One of the highest priorities areas we think about, and work on daily, is how best to keep our residents safe and well. It’s no secret that there is great concern about violent crime in Durham. At the same time, there is concern about the history of policing in our country and its impact on people of color. 

Right now, Durham has an opportunity to lead the way and find new, equitable, and innovative approaches to keep our community safe and well. The creation of this department reflects our belief that responding to the safety and wellness needs of all of our residents requires more than police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. 

Our first responders remain absolutely necessary and crucial to our public safety services moving forward. We still need policing to help protect our community. But, it’s unfair to expect them to address every single issue our residents experience. For example, to expect that - on top of everything they must do -  they address mental and behavioral health needs or connect residents to social services to help them through a crisis. I’d like to note that many of our officers also support exploring other ways to address 911 calls that don’t need an officer response.

Meeting these sorts of diverse needs requires that we broaden our imagination of what public safety and first responders look like in Durham. I believe, as does the City Council, that creating this department is an important first step in that journey.

Community Safety Department Background

Our staff has been very intentional around developing the concept of this department. In fact, the work that ultimately led to its creation began nearly a year ago.  

In August 2020, we partnered with RTI International to launch an in-depth analysis of 911 calls to help us understand the needs of our residents and what types of resources could best address those needs. This work included an analysis of nearly 1 million calls between 2017 and 2020; a use-of-force analysis; a survey and focus groups with our first responders; and research of other promising approaches happening in cities across the country.  

Based on this analysis, evidence from other communities, and input from City Council, we’ve identified a number of 911 call types where we can best respond to the needs of our residents by means other than dispatching an armed police officer.  These call types include some calls involving mental or behavioral health needs, minor traffic incidents, quality-of-life issues, and calls for general assistance.  

Community Safety Pilot Projects

During the first year, we’ll implement pilots to explore alternative responses to these sorts of 911 call types. We’ll proceed with careful planning and support from RTI and a range of other experts as well as with input from our own police, fire, emergency communications, and emergency management departments, and our residents. 

Evidence from other communities that are trying this approach, such as Denver, gives me confidence that we can safely dispatch unarmed responders with the right training to better meet the needs of our neighbors and visitors in non-violent situations.  

We will NOT send social workers to respond to gun violence. While there are 911 call types that can be handled with trained, unarmed professionals, any calls involving guns, weapons and the threat of violence are NOT among them. 

Community Safety Partnerships

To be successful, we’ll collaborate closely with many agencies and community partners, including Durham County Departments of Public Health, Social Services, and Emergency Medical Services, and Alliance Health – to name a few. 

In addition to the pilot programs, our staff will also take on management of a number of contracts and partnerships with organizations including our investment of nearly $1 million to expand Durham County’s Bull City United Program, and with Legal Aid of North Carolina to continue the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program

This department will also serve as the main staffing resource for the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force and will work closely with these community leaders to engage our residents in this work and to advance additional, promising approaches they may identify.

Community Safety Department: Staffing & Budget

To accomplish all of this, the department will start off with 15 positions. Half of these will be dedicated to implementing alternative response pilots and will include professionals such as mental health clinicians, licensed social workers, and other trained civilian responders. Other staff will support the planning and evaluation of these pilots, provide research support to our community task force, and oversee a number of contracts and partnerships.  

We’ve funded this department’s budget of $2.8 million through a variety of ways including from our General Fund and by transferring vacant positions from several departments. This includes transferring five vacant positions, out of more than 75 vacancies from the police department. That represents less than 1% of current police personnel.  

In six months, we’ll provide an update to City Council on the pilot plans and any additional resources needed, including more personnel, to advance these plans. City Council has frozen 15 vacant positions in the police department that may be transferred to community safety if those positions are needed.

Closing

We are excited to start this work. We’ll be posting some of our positions on our website as early as the end of June, and hope to begin hiring in July. We’ll also contract out some of our positions delivering alternative responses, and plan to begin adding these personnel within the next couple months as plans for some of the early pilots are finalized.  

While we take time this summer and fall to carefully plan these pilot programs, I do anticipate our pilots beginning this fiscal year. 

As we are committed to transparency and accountability in this work, we’ll provide updates on our website so our residents know what to expect.