Alternatives to Police for Responding to Non-Violent 911 Calls

We’re developing alternatives to end the use of police in response to behavioral health and other non-violent calls for service

London Breed
9 min readSep 8, 2020

Overview of our Public Safety Reform Roadmap

In June, I announced my vision to fundamentally change the nature of policing in San Francisco. To address the structural inequities that too many in our City experience, in particular our African-American community, we need fundamental change and reinvestment. The criminal justice system can no longer be our answer to social problems. We have to reimagine a public safety system in which race does not influence or determine the outcome.

My Roadmap focused on four broad priorities to achieve this vision

  • Ending the use of police in response to non-violent activity
  • Addressing police bias and strengthening accountability
  • Demilitarizing the police
  • Promoting economic justice.

These policies build on the City’s ongoing work to meet the standards contained in President Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Work has begun in all areas, but today, let’s talk about response to non-violent calls.

Diverting Non-Violent Calls

Working to divert non-violent calls for service away from a law enforcement-based response is a profound change in how we as a City respond when someone calls for assistance. It’s a key part of addressing our structural inequities, but it’s going to take work and it’s going to take time. It will require trying new things and adapting as we go. But we are determined to craft a better, more effective system of safety that works for our City.

Changing our response for non-violent calls will do two critical things:

  • Address the specific need that motivated the person to call for assistance with the most effective response;
  • Free up our police officers to focus on the situations that require a response from armed and trained officers, such as violent crimes, investigations, and the work that they were hired to do to keep the community safe.

Now, there are still some non-violent calls that police will respond to, like burglaries that have occurred or auto theft and break-ins, but there are many non-violent calls for service that don’t need an armed police response. Our police officers are not mental health professionals. They are not medically-trained, and they are not social workers or child development specialists. It’s a failure of our overall public safety and human services system that we expect them to be.

Over the next year, the City will develop a systematic response plan to improve direct connection to community-based or City service providers, such as the recently announced Street Crisis Response Teams. Other innovative approaches, such as San Francisco’s Street Medicine behavioral health professionals and our Street Violence Intervention Project, are the kinds of alternative approaches to public safety that we will be discussing along with models from around the country that have been proven to be effective and sustainable.

Mayor Breed out with the Street Medicine Team, which consists of homeless outreach professionals and medical staff who go out every day to bring support and try to transition people into shelter and housing

How Do People Call for Help?

As a City, we get calls from people in need of assistance through a variety of ways. We get 911 calls for emergencies, 311 for service requests, the police non-emergency line for non-urgent needs, and calls directly to the Homeless Outreach Team.

911 calls and police non-emergency calls are answered by our dispatchers who work at the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), and if they are a police call they are immediately assigned to one of three categories based on the information gathered from each call: Priority A, B, and C. Each call type has a different targeted response time — which is the time from when the call was received to when the responders arrive on the scene.

Priority A calls: these are the highest priority calls, and they have a target response time of 7 minutes. These are calls where there is a present or imminent danger to life or major property damage. For example: live gun shots, a multi-car pile-up, suicide attempt, a fight with weapons, or a burglary in progress.

Priority B calls: target response time of 20 minutes. These calls are for incidents where a crime has just occurred, and where there is the potential for damage to property. For example: a burglar alarm sounding where there is no other evidence the perpetrator is still on scene, or a verbal fight (without weapons).

Priority C calls: target response time of 60 minutes. Calls where there is no present or potential danger to life or property are categorized as Priority C calls. These include calls about loitering, parking violations, or noise complaints.

911 Response times for Priority A (orange), B (Blue) and C (Purple) Calls since 2015

Our average response times for Priority A and B calls generally meet the target we’ve established, but our Priority C calls are taking us longer to respond to than we’d like and longer than our residents, visitors, and workers deserve. We’ve made progress over the past few years with the response time, but there’s still room for improvement.

Response times are not just figures or a set of data. Behind each response is a person who has experienced something that they do not know how to handle on their own or simply cannot handle themselves — the longer that someone has to wait for help to arrive, the more stress, anxiety, and injury they endure.

The Data Behind Non-Violent Calls

Our goal is to start by diverting many of these Priority C calls and behavioral health calls. We want to reassign them so the person calling for help or service gets assistance, but not a police response that isn’t necessary or effective to meet their needs. This allows our officers to focus on the Priority A and B calls that require a police response.

We are currently doing the work to analyze these calls and determine which should be diverted from SFPD first, but for example in 2019 the Department of Emergency Management received 50,840 calls for service related to behavioral health and wellbeing, including:

  • 21,860 calls for “mentally disturbed persons” “person attempting suicide” “mental health detention”
  • 28,980 calls for “check on well-being”
  • 30–35% of 911 medical call volume is for persons with an unknown address, or people who are homeless.

In the first half of 2020, the San Francisco Police Department received 25,770 calls for service related to mental health and wellbeing:

  • 11,039 mental health calls
  • 14,731 well-being checks

We have already compiled some data about the frequency of all calls for service by hour and weekday. This data shows us that call volume typically increases in the afternoon and evening, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

What we’re doing now is further evaluating call patterns and understanding how our resources are currently being deployed. But that’s a huge volume of calls that too often go to the police because they are the most readily available and resourced responders in our City. The Police are currently one of the only City departments that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I know some people are calling for immediate change, but you can’t just replace a 24/7 response like that overnight. We have to invest in and develop alternative responses. While we don’t have all the answers yet — like I said, this is going to take time — we are investing and deploying resources to begin to change how we respond.

Steps We Are Taking

We have invested in EMS-6, which is a specialized unit of the San Francisco Fire Department which dispatches trained community paramedics who respond to calls for high-users of the City’s emergency services. EMS-6 paramedics connect vulnerable people with care for acute medical, mental health, and social needs. The San Francisco Police Department has a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Program, which trains officers how to respond to people experiencing a behavioral health emergency. The CIT works with the Department of Public Health’s Comprehensive Crisis Services team to answer calls for support.

We also have a Homeless Outreach Team and DPH Street Medicine and Shelter Health teams, which are out in the field helping take care of people — but under our current system, these teams are not dispatched to 911 calls.

Member of the EMS-6 team checks on the health and well-being of a person on the sidewalk who may need medical attention.

We are creating Street Crisis Response Teams which will contribute to our efforts to change the way San Francisco responds to 911 and 311 calls regarding behavioral health emergencies. The Street Crisis Response Teams will include community paramedic from the Fire Department, and a behavioral health clinician and behavioral health peer from the Department of Public Health. The team will be dispatched to address calls for service that the Police Department currently responds to, including suicide or self-harm calls and calls for assistance to people who are presenting as disoriented, or who have other symptoms of intoxication or psychosis. In addition, individuals can be connected to additional services and would be supported by the Department of Public Health to get the follow-up care they need.

The budget that I’ve proposed for the next two years includes $4 million from the General Fund to pilot a Street Crisis Response Team. If the consensus Business Tax Reform ballot measure passes in November, Proposition C revenues will enable the City to direct a total of approximately $18.5 million to the pilot program over two years, which would expand the program and create additional Street Crisis Response Teams.

We have also created a Steering Committee of people with lived experience and expertise in behavioral health and homelessness to help us design other models of response to calls for service around homelessness and/or behavioral health situations. This Steering Committee has started meeting and will be working with the engagement of both City staff and community stakeholders and the support of the Human Rights Commission to facilitate these discussions. San Francisco is not short of ideas and enthusiasm and innovation, we just need to harness and focus that conversation to move towards actual programs and future budget investments.

Why This is Important

The data is stark. We have seen a disparate impact of policing on African American and Latino San Franciscans. African-Americans experience higher use of force rates by law enforcement than anyone in San Francisco. About 45% of all San Francisco Police Department use-of-force cases in 2019 involved Black people. A fairly recent report by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability and Fairness in Law Enforcement found that 15% of people pulled over in traffic stops just in one month alone were African Americans, much higher than their percentage of the city’s population, and comprised over 42% of all non-consensual searches following stops. The search data also revealed that African Americans who were searched were typically NOT found to be in possession of anything illegal. For example: contraband was recovered nearly 75% of the time during non-consensual searches of white residents, compared to 33% of the time in searches of Black individuals.

We also know that armed law-enforcement response is often not the most appropriate or effective response to those experiencing a behavioral health crisis. In fact, it can escalate the situation. Again, this isn’t the fault of individual officers. The system is broken. For too long, we have used our criminal justice system as the solution to deep-seated social problems, from asking our police to be superhuman responders to situations that they are not equipped to resolve successfully to using our jails as our answer to the need for mental health services and substance use treatment facilities.

Long Road Ahead

This is not going to change overnight, but it will change. Again, this is better for our residents and better for the City workers who are responding to those in need. As we work to make the structural change through our $120 million reinvestment in the African-American community, we also need to make changes to our systems. I am committed, and I know we can do it.