“We need police,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, as he announced a financial commitment to a new civilian crisis response team.
Bronin said his new approach to public safety won’t replace police officers or defund their department.
“What we’re talking about here is a crisis response team that is specifically focused on filling a gap,” he explained.
The team of civilians will be hired and trained to respond to non-violent calls for help. Bronin said he hoped to have the first boots on the ground later this year.
“When you talk about mental health, when you talk about substance abuse, and when you talk about non-criminal offenses,” added Hartford City Councilman Nick Lebron (D) of the types of calls the crisis team could respond to.
Eugene, Oregon will be the model. For the last 30 years, the non-profit, White Bird Clinic has helped address non-violent public safety concerns in that community through a program called CAHOOTS.
“It frees up the highly training officers on our police departments to focus on the situations where they’re most needed,” explained Executive Coordinator Chris Hecht.
According to Hecht, their six staff members working in the field responded to 20% of the calls to Eugene and Springfield, Oregon’s calls in 2019. That’s about 24,000 calls.
However, Hecht said they only called for police backup 150 times.
“The vast majority of those calls were handled and resolved well by our team,” said Hecht.
Building the team will take time. Hartford’s program won’t reach full funding for four years.
“You can’t just, with a snap of your fingers, wish this into existence,” said Bronin.
Bronin said money for the project will come from savings already realized in the budget thanks to new spending practices along with money the city saved during the coronavirus shutdown. While Bronin said the full $5 million in funding currently exists, it will have to be allocated by the city council over the next four years. He said, $500,000 will be spent this year, $1 million next year, $1.5 million in the third year and $2 million in the fourth year.
Hecht said the CAHOOTS program receives $2 million annually.
Bronin was optimistic that the upfront costs could lead to savings down the line in police overtime. Hecht said Eugene spent less money on minor medical calls, which would otherwise end up in the ER.
“Between the ambulance savings and then transport to the emergency room we estimate that in 2019 we saved the community somewhere around $14 million on the medical side,” he explained.
The head of the Hartford police union said he supports the plan.
“Sometimes an officer’s uniform makes certain situations worse. The person that is going through the distress usually thinks they are in trouble because the police were called when it is the opposite,” Officer Anthony Rinaldi wrote to NBC Connecticut.
Resident Reaction Mixed
“If the police officer would do their job and the citizen would do their job, we could take that money and put it toward our kids' school to make sure they get a proper education. To me, it’s a waste of money,” said Hartford resident Angelo Brown.
Waida Sanchez, who spent two years living on the streets of Hartford as a teen, said she’d be more comfortable seeing a social worker come to her aid than a uniformed police officer.
“I personally don’t trust cops anymore. I have lost faith in them and I’m afraid for my children, I’m afraid for my grandchildren,” she explained.
Sanchez said it was social workers, not police, who helped her leave her life on the streets.
“Through caseworkers and help I’ve pulled through and I really do think they can help them,” she added.
The announcement comes on the heels of a decision by the city council and supported by the mayor to reallocate $2.6 million of the police department’s budget. One million of that will stay with the police department but go towards training. The rest will be given to other city services.
“This will not impact the police budget today,” said Bronin when asked if it could lead to personnel cuts at the police department.
NBC Connecticut reached out to Chief Jason Thody for comment on Thursday’s announcement but did not hear back.
On June 13 he spoke with NBC Connecticut about calls to defund police departments.
“I don’t support the defunding efforts. If there’s money that can be allocated to other areas like health and human services, like youth programs, I think that’s great and I fully support that, but we’ve got to find a way to do that where the message isn’t one of punishment,” he said. “The message that any kind of defunding sends a department that has a pretty good report card right now I think is a poor one.”