Nathaniel Rosenberg, Contributing Photographer

New Haven has launched a long-awaited pilot program that will place more social workers at emergency scenes.

The program — Elm City Compassionate Allies Serving Our Streets — was first announced in August 2020 in response to local protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and was initially pitched as a way to provide social services rather than criminal charges for people in crisis.

“Like the name COMPASS infers, this program is designed to help ensure when a 911 emergency call comes, the right person, with the right skills, at the right time, will come to help you out,” Mayor Justin Elicker said at a Nov. 1 press conference.

The program’s crux, a rotating two-person crisis team, will not initially replace emergency responders, such as police, firefighters or emergency medical services on dispatch calls. Instead, first responders will offload certain calls, such as with people experiencing mental health crises, substance abuse issues or in need of housing. 

COMPASS is currently comprised of six social workers and peer recovery specialists who will respond to certain emergency calls between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., seven days a week.

Multiple officials said that the goal was to expand the team’s coverage to 16 hours a day by July of 2023. Mehul Dalal, the city’s community services administrator, also estimated that about 10 percent of 911 calls, approximately 11,000 calls a year, could be answered by mental health professionals. 

After over two years of stagnation, the implementation of the program picked up in July, when the city agreed to a three-year, $3.5 million contract with Yale University to help implement the crisis program. 

COMPASS is a collaboration between the Consultation Center at Yale, the city’s Department of Community Resilience and subcontractor Continuum of Care, who is providing the initial staffing for the crisis response team.

Callie Benson-Williams ’23, the chair of Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, a group that calls for the abolition of the Yale Police Department, stressed that although her expertise was on the YPD, she saw this program as an incremental improvement, not an abolitionist one. 

“I think allowing that anger and want for change [from 2020] to die down with these sort of quasi-responses to demands worries me a little bit because I feel like the momentum has sort of been lost,” Benson-Williams said. “I worry that by having the police running these reformist things that we will never get to a place of abolition.” 

Carlos Sosa-Lombardo, the director of the Department of Community Resilience, stressed that the city did not want to rush the design or rollout of the program. Sosa-Lombardo highlighted the unique aspects of New Haven’s program. Sosa-Lombardo said the team gathered community input from over 200 locals on the pilot. COMPASS will also include a volunteer community advisory board that will continue to give feedback on the program.

Other cities across the country have similar programs, including Support Team Assisted Response in Denver, where teams of emergency medical technicians and behavioral health clinicians respond to similar non-violent calls, but are directly dispatched from 911. Eugene, Oregon, has Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, a decades-old program consisting of a medic and a crisis worker that respond directly to certain emergency calls 24/7.  

Benson-Williams said she attended an early town hall on the program and found it productive, but she also cautioned more generally against relying too heavily on a system dictated by local input.

“One danger of community conversation frameworks in government is they’ll often treat all perspectives as completely on the same grounds,” Benson-Williams told the News. “That people who have experienced violence and are people of color, people who have been harassed by police, [all] have the equal level of concern as people who have never experienced that, who are white, who are protected, who are privileged.”

 Dalal emphasized that COMPASS is hosted under New Haven’s new Department of Community Resilience, rather than the New Haven Police Department, so that the crisis team can provide social services even after the immediate emergency has passed.

“The focus is to coordinate a broader system of support for our fellow residents that are most impacted by mental health challenges, substance abuse, incarceration, housing instability and violence,” Dalal said. 

“COMPASS is about our community coming together to care for each other, simple as that,” said Dr. Jack Tebes, COMPASS’s director and a Yale psychiatry professor. “It’ll include residents of New Haven, people in crisis, first responders, family members, service providers, the faith community, people with lived experience of mental illness and addiction and our political leaders.”

One faith leader and frequent police critic, Pastor Donarell Elder of Way of the Cross Church, shared his excitement for the program with the News. Elder sued the city in January of this year for keeping then-Acting Police Chief Renee Dominguez in her role after she was rejected from the permanent chief job by the Board of Alders.

“The collaboration, the coming together, having this partnership with other kinds of disciplines, that’s going to be part of our first line of defense,” Elder said. “This is a needed feature, to what we do to provide assistance, this is a safety net!”

Elder cited the mass overdose from synthetic K-2 that occurred on the Green in the summer of 2018 as an incident where he thinks having COMPASS’s expertise in the area of substance abuse would have been useful for first responders.

Police Chief Karl Jacobson also spoke about the need for the pilot, especially as a service that can prevent similar issues from recurring.

“As a police officer of 24 years, I would go to calls and go to calls over and over again and not be able to do anything for people,” Jacobson said. “And now we can do something for people that we weren’t able to do before.”

The launch of the program was delayed when the New Haven Police Union filed a grievance with the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations alleging that the implementation of COMPASS violated labor law. The union stated in their complaint that the city was “failing to bargain collectively and in good faith with the Union.” The police union is currently negotiating a contract with the city. 

At the press conference, Elicker confirmed that the grievance was ongoing, and that the labor board had declined to stop the program from going forward.

“We’re continuing to negotiate with the police union,” Elicker said. “The state labor board made a determination that the cease and desist was not necessary, but we’ll have a hearing and we’ll continue to negotiate.”

Also on hand to trumpet COMPASS was Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who secured $2 million in federal funding for the pilot project, which she mentioned at the press conference to cheers and applause.

“There were those who said, ‘when is it coming? When is it coming? When is it coming?’” DeLauro said. “Well, it is here! And it is right, you made a decision to make it sure it was right before you launched forward.”

As for the crisis team members themselves, Jennifer Vargas, the director of acute services at Continuum of Care, is actually overseeing the team’s day to day operations. She described the team as excited, and ready to begin helping the community that they live in every day.

“Having peers with lived experience working alongside our social workers, will offer the city and the community exactly what it needs,” Vargas said to applause. “We also ensure that our staff live in the city as a part of this community. They get it and that also adds so much value to our team and our mission.”

The COMPASS team started their first day on the job as soon as the press conference ended, around 10:30 a.m. 

Nathaniel Rosenberg is City Editor for the News. He previously served as Audience Editor, where he managed the News's newsletter content, covered cops and courts and housing and homelessness for the City Desk. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, he is a junior in Morse College majoring in history.