At a press conference earlier this month, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker announced the city’s plans to create a community crisis response team — a program that plans to redirect certain city 911 calls to social services instead of law enforcement. 

The team would include social workers, mental health experts and medical health professionals, Elicker said. According to Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, the director of Project Fresh Start — a New Haven-based prison reintegration program — professionals would assess 911 calls and decide whether to direct them to a mobile response team. Such calls would generally regard mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness and not instances involving criminal activity or emergency medical attention, Sosa-Lombardo said. The first responders would not be affiliated with law enforcement or carry weapons, but would bring police radio — a practice in line with other cities testing out similar programs.

“This is part of a broader conversation in our country about what we must reckon with, and in particular around the criminalisation of people of colour, communities of colour — in particular Black men — and the inequities in our criminal justice system,” Elicker said. “The goal of the community crisis response team is to ensure that people with the right skills and the right experience arrive to provide the right care at the right time.” 

According to City Community Services Administrator Mehul Dalal, a review of 911 call data from 2019 revealed that up to 11,000 dispatches in New Haven could have been dealt with by a community crisis response team of this nature instead of by law enforcement. George Peet, the director of New Haven’s 911 call center, said that out of the 7,000 weekly calls wired through the center, only 2,000 calls came from residents who actually dialled 911. The rest, he said, came from a non-emergency police number.

Elicker said that often, police officers were expected to play the role of social workers — causing unnecessary escalation in encounters with residents. He stressed that the response team was intended to function as a “complement” to law enforcement, with the crisis team working in tandem with the police department and the fire department. 

“This is not what defunding the police looks like,”  New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes said at the press conference. “This is about providing the right services and making sure we’re hitting the mark in what we’re looking to achieve — which is a better city, a healthier city, and better outcomes for our citizens.” 

Leonard Jahad, head of the Connecticut Violence Intervention Program, CVIP, told the News that he saw the community crisis response team as an opportunity to match individuals with specialized training to situations as needed. CVIP sends outreach workers to the sites of shootings and emergency rooms to mediate violent disputes between youths in New Haven. According to Jahad, New Haven is a city particularly focused on community relationships, and so building trust between residents and the community crisis response team would be imperative to the program’s success.   

“A lot of communities think that when the police come, they’re putting their safety at risk,” Jahad said. “So if there is another response, it could work better, but it’s going to take some time. But I look forward to it, I look forward to working with the police and with the social workers who will respond in this team.” 

This summer, Elm City has seen a continual spike in tension between law enforcement and community members. Protests have rocked the city in solidarity with national outcry over police brutality against Black Americans, and local activists have also decried instances of police brutality in Connecticut and New Haven.

Among the key demands of community and student protestors is to defund the New Haven and Yale police departments and reallocate money to fund local social services in New Haven.

Chris Garaffa, a New Haven community organizer for Trans Lifeline, a local trans support organization, told the News that the community crisis response team could be a step in the right direction — provided that the city was able to procure adequate funding for the program and obtain vigorous community feedback on the nature of the team. Garaffa cited several incidents in his work where individuals, specifically Black trans people, were afraid to call for help because they feared law enforcement. 

“I work in mental health services, and calling the police on someone in crisis is pretty much the worst thing you can do for them,” Garaffa said. “If done properly, this could really benefit the community and help start addressing some of the issues of mental health and crisis that aren’t related to crime.” 

The timeline for implementing the team could stretch into mid-2021, Dalal said, citing a need to identify qualified service providers while building on existing social services infrastructures in New Haven. Elicker said that the initial planning phase of the team will take at least six months — including time for community input and evaluation of funding streams. 

Following the planning phase, the city plans to implement a one-year initial run of the program and then step up expansion to 24/7 coverage.