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posted Friday, November 20, 2020 - Volume 48 Issue 47
Rep. Smith introduces bill to fund community-based public safety programs, divert nonviolent 911 calls to specialized responders
Section One
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Rep. Smith introduces bill to fund community-based public safety programs, divert nonviolent 911 calls to specialized responders

WASHINGTON, DC (November 17, 2020) - Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced the 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel Act, which would provide funding for unarmed 911 response programs that divert nonviolent 911 calls to specialized service providers instead of law enforcement.

"It's abundantly clear that we need to fundamentally reimagine what law enforcement looks like in our country," said Rep. Smith. "A critical step in this process of addressing systemic racism and restructuring law enforcement is reexamining the hyperactive approach to policing that tasks law enforcement officers with responding to situations they are neither trained nor equipped to handle.

"The 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel Act would support programs that enable 911 call dispatchers to direct nonviolent calls toward unarmed responders who can connect people with the services and care they need. Community-based public safety programs across the country have shown incredible success in responding to nonviolent 911 calls with specialized service providers, like social workers, medical professionals, and restorative justice practitioners. These programs reduce violent and hostile encounters, help restore trust between law enforcement and community members, and provide for better services and care to community members.

"Our communities deserve an emergency response system that recognizes the range of urgent needs that are best addressed without police involvement. Unarmed 911 response programs are a critical component to reimaging public safety in a holistic, equitable way that centers on getting individuals the resources and services they need."

911 receives more than 240 million calls every year. The overwhelming majority these calls involve nonviolent, noncriminal incidents such as neighbor disputes, nuisance complaints, truancy, reports of "suspicious" activity, requests for wellness checks, and mental health crises. Both the police and policing reform advocates often assert that specialized service providers - such as social workers, paramedics, and peer support counselors - are better equipped to handle such situations than armed officers. The "send the police to everything" approach that prevails in much of our country often places armed law enforcement officers in situations they are neither equipped nor trained to handle and leads to encounters between police and civilians that turn violent and, in many cases, deadly.

The 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel Act would provide funding to state, local, or tribal jurisdictions to support unarmed 911 response programs that divert nonviolent 911 calls toward specialized service providers and away from traditional law enforcement. The funding may be used to hire and train service professionals and 911 dispatchers, modify existing 911 call systems, or obtain necessary equipment and technological capabilities.

The bill requires that the programs are managed independently from and are not subject to oversight from state or local law enforcement agencies. These diversion programs will help ensure that individuals who are the subject of calls to 911 and who are experiencing addiction, homelessness, or mental health crises are met with professional service providers capable of providing screening, assessment, de-escalation, and transportation to immediately necessary treatment.

Courtesy of Rep. Adam Smith

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