by Casey J. Bastian
In any emergency, Americans have been conditioned to call 911. Those three digits are typed into a phone by someone experiencing a critical situation around 240 million times per year. Despite its universal familiarity, the 911 system has existed for only 53 years. While we can document the number of calls received by the 911 systems across America, determining who and why they are calling is more difficult. Even harder to determine is how successful are the emergency responders in dealing with the enormous variety of calls and requests for help. Having law enforcement involved with every response is not always the best solution. In fact, it has proven too frequently to make a bad situation much, much worse. And for members of the Black and marginalized communities, this reality has long been recognized.
The 911 emergency system exists to provide people with prompt emergency services. The needed emergency service obviously depends on the nature of the situation. It might require rapid response medical assistance or the fire department. The concern with only being able to call 911 for every emergency is that the systems are intertwined in such a way that merely requesting an ambulance can cause a police car full of cops to arrive as well. And when the emergency is dealing with mental health crises, law enforcement involvement has been shown to cause unwarranted escalations. A person who is experiencing a mental health crisis is statistically much more likely to have a fatal encounter with law enforcement. The numbers are even higher for those in the Black and marginalized communities. Which is why these are the very groups most loudly advocating for alternatives to 911—to avoid unnecessary interactions with the police they don’t trust. So, if you need help, but you don’t want to call the police, who do you call?
Fortunately, 911 is not the only number someone can call in an emergency. As beliefs about the role policing should play in our society continue to evolve, alternate systems for managing crises or responding to violence are emerging. Mallory Sepler-King experienced an epiphany during the George Floyd protests. Sepler-King was struck by a desire to assist in the decoupling of police in crisis response systems. Seeing lists available on social media sites of alternatives to 911 in cities across the America, Sepler-King worked to centralize these resources in one convenient site. The result is dontcallthepolice.com. “As a country, we’ve been really programmed to view the police as a catch-all for everything that scares us or worries us, or any risks or harm that we encounter. That’s not what the police are trained to do and it’s not something they are equipped to do in many of these situations,” said Sepler-King. She points out that many police officers agree with that assessment. Sepler-King added, “It’s important that people be deprogrammed from that and realize that there are specialized resources that can help with their situation that aren’t going to put people at risk, and that it can actually provide better help to them.”
Currently, dontcallthepolice.com provides access to resources from more than 70 cities across the U.S. Sites available in New York City; Los Angeles; Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, provide a host of hotlines and warmlines (i.e., services that provide pre-crisis emotional support). Both are divided into eight categories, including: domestic violence/sexual assault, housing, LGBTQ+, mental health, substance abuse, youths, elders, and crime. Sepler-King said the more she researched, the more important it became to provide a centralized database for those in need.
“[I]t’s not something that you stick into Google and find on a whim,” said Sepler-King.
There are some alternatives to 911, such as 311. While 311 may not be available in all cities, this is an option in many areas for non-emergency assistance. Calling 311 provides access to trained representatives who will provide the needed assistance. Call BlackLine is a 24-hour, volunteer-run hotline for discussing negative experiences resulting from discrimination and racism.
“People want to call just to talk about how they navigate being underestimated and marginalized in this country,” said Vanessa Green, the founder of Call BlackLine.
Trans LifeLine is another national, non-profit hotline offering peer-to-peer counseling and other services for trans people by trans operators. Other resources beyond 911 and those listed above include: Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention; Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program comprised of mobile crisis responders; and San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, which takes reports of hate crimes. We as a society need to continue to find alternatives to policing for many of these social problems in our pursuit of true public safety.
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