Citizens on Patrol: Some Police Using Civilians for 911 Calls

Most people assume when they call 911 and ask for assistance that an officer will respond. But some departments around the country are experimenting with using civilian teams to handle certain non-violent situations, which often involve those with mental health issues. Denver, Colorado is testing one such program that teams a mental health professional with a medic to respond to 911 calls that don't involve a weapon or a threat to the public. Advocates of the program say it can de-escalate situations that sometimes get worse when police arrive, while also reducing workload for officers and improving 911 response times.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo says a similar program is already in effect here. "We actually send non-police officers to scenes, and these people are mental health professionals that can intervene, and hopefully calm the person down and get the help they need," he tells KTRH. "Also, we actually have mental health experts at our call center taking these calls from people who are in mental crisis, and in many instances they are being transferred to service providers without any police response."

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls sees it a little differently. He tells KTRH he has safety concerns about civilians responding to 911 calls, noting that just because a situation is "non-violent" it can still become violent during or after response. "We have specially-trained deputies that will respond to those types of calls," says Nehls. "Now maybe they don't have those specially-trained deputies in Denver, but fortunately for Fort Bend County we do have them."

Nehls' office is looking at other ways to involve those who aren't wearing a badge. "We're rolling out a program in the next 60 days called You Are Not Alone, where we'll have civilian senior citizens just go to homes and check on people...just to check on other seniors throughout Fort Bend County to make sure that they're doing okay," he says.

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