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Durham’s Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response programs seek to decrease law enforcement intervention, divert over 800 calls

After almost three months in operation, the Durham Community Safety Department’s new Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams pilot programs have decreased more than 800 law enforcement interactions. 

The HEART pilot programs were launched in late June to provide unarmed response alternatives for crisis 911 calls. As of Sept. 26, they’ve responded to 805 calls across their three programs — Crisis Call Diversion, Community Response Teams and Care Navigation. 

These calls, which previously would have been directed to Durham law enforcement, now go straight to HEART staff. This diversion allows for a more efficient allocation of police resources as they can now “refocus on other areas that may be about violent crime or criminal activity,” according to Ryan Smith, Sanford ‘14 and Durham Community Safety Department director. 

The HEART pilot programs were launched a year after the creation of the Community Safety Department in 2021. The goal of this new department was to increase public safety while reducing reliance on police intervention and the criminal legal system. 

One of the programs is the Crisis Call Diversion pilot. This program embeds mental health clinicians into Durham’s 911 call center to avoid police intervention unless necessary. Over the last three months, this program has responded to mostly mental health crisis calls or follow-ups.

The Community Response Teams pilot sends teams of three unarmed responders — a licensed mental health clinician, a peer support specialist and an EMT — to the scene of nonviolent mental health or behavioral 911 calls. So far, this program has been mostly utilized for trespassing, mental health crises and welfare check calls.

The third of the interlocking programs is the Care Navigation service, which provides follow-ups 48 hours after the reported crisis. This service then connects people with the care that they need after the event. The Care Navigation service has been in contact with 117 individuals seeking assistance.

A fourth program, called the Co-Response pilot, pairs clinicians with officers in the police department.

“They'll be responding to some higher acuity calls, where weapons may be present,” smith said. 

According to Smith, the programs have proven highly successful at diverting 911 calls away from any law enforcement intervention. Within the Community Response Teams pilot, more than three-quarters of all calls were diverted from police intervention, and almost half of all calls directed to the Crisis Call Diversion program were able to be resolved without any in-person contact.

Although the department has responded to over 800 calls, “that's not reflective of the full demand,” Smith said. As of late September, the HEART pilot programs only cover a small geographic plane, largely spanning central Durham County. 

Over the past three months, the staff has been inundated and only able to respond to 805 of the 6902 eligible calls, just over 11%, as of Sept. 26. 

Expansion efforts have been made so that HEART staff can respond to a greater percentage of calls. For the first several weeks of the CRT program, it only ran with one team Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It recently expanded to include a second team that runs seven days a week 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

"We need time to learn and evaluate," Smith said. "The hope is that these things will be readily available to all residents.”


Audrey Patterson | Staff Reporter

Audrey Patterson is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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