Rep. Smith Introduces Bill to Divert Nonviolent 911 Calls to Specialized Responders, Fund Community-Based Public Safety Programs
March 11, 2021
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.) 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 public safety and what law enforcement looks like in our country,” said Rep. Adam Smith. “Too often, law enforcement officers are tasked with responding to situations they are neither trained nor equipped to handle. Directly addressing systemic racism and restructuring law enforcement’s approach to public safety must recognize the range of urgent needs that are best addressed without police involvement in a holistic, equitable way that centers on getting individuals the resources and services they need.
“With guidance from members of the community, I authored the 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel Act to support programs that enable 911 call dispatchers to direct nonviolent calls toward unarmed, specialized responders who can connect people with the care they need,” Rep. Smith continued. “Community-based public safety programs across the country have shown incredible success in responding to nonviolent 911 calls, and instead of sending police to a behavioral health crisis, specialized service providers like social workers, medical professionals, and peer support counselors would respond. These programs reduce violent and hostile encounters, help restore trust between law enforcement and community members, and provide better services and care for public safety.”
911 receives more than 240 million calls every year. The overwhelming majority of these calls involve nonviolent, non-criminal 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 bill requires that the programs are managed independently from state or local law enforcement agencies. These diversion programs will help ensure that individuals who are experiencing addiction crises, homelessness, or developmental or intellectual disability, or other mental health issues are met with professional service providers capable of providing screening, assessment, de-escalation, and transportation to immediately necessary treatment.
Statements of Support:
Washington State Representative Jesse Johnson:
“This legislation is about doing all we can to prevent another needless death. Another funeral. Preserving and protecting human life should be our highest value. The 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel program is common sense because it prioritizes de-escalation and alternatives to incarceration for those experiencing a mental health crisis, homelessness, addiction or a disability. It will help reduce violence and build trust in the system with communities of color because everyone deserves to be safe and to be protected. Every life should be valued.”
Michelle Merriweather, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle:
“Everyone deserves to be treated with humanity, including those who face mental health crises. 1 in 10 police interactions involve a person with a mental illness. Our Black and Brown folks living with disabilities need support, not potential jail time. Having a diversion program to ensure that when someone is in crisis, they are not met with an armed police officer will provide public safety so that everyone makes it out alive. The 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel Act will provide vital funding for our community in Washington state and make sure we are protected.”
Sakara Remmu, Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance:
“The nation has reached a pivotal point, both in awareness of community safety through the experiences and deaths of Black Americans, and in deciding to stand up and take action to make the changes required to better serve all communities. It is time to go beyond imagining a new way—it’s time to begin to implement alternatives to an armed police response when someone needs help, or is having a mental health crisis. Law enforcement officers are not social workers, they aren’t doctors. Attempts at de-escalation are more likely to fail when someone with a gun shows up. With this bill, Congress is beginning to take steps to make changes to policing and community safety that we have demanded for decades.”
Lyn Idahosa, Federal Way Black Collective:
“The summer of 2020 taught us a lot, as organizers in community we have heard calls for true change had a goal to create a solution that removes the burden of utilizing the police as a catch all agency and also clearly sets a priority to change the way mental health services are delivered to the public from a more holistic and dignified perspective. Having trusted messengers in community to respond in times of mental crisis is important not only for future patients but also in restoring trust in systems and the improving community trust and outcomes. Congressman Smith is honing in on clear practical policy that makes sense and is the response community has been calling for every time we say the name of the victims that have lost their lives because we need the right kind of service providers addressing these calls.”