City of Phoenix Wants to Divert Calls From Its Police

A Phoenix Police Department vehicle.
A Phoenix Police Department vehicle. Ash Ponders
Parking tickets, welfare checks, minor car crashes — these are all duties that the city of Phoenix soon wants to transfer out of the hands of its police force.

In October 2021, the city commissioned Arizona State University researchers to study the Phoenix Police Department to determine which calls might be diverted away from the cops. The study seemed inspired partly by calls from local activists, who had renewed their calls for alternatives to policing during the uprisings over the murder of George Floyd. But the work was also embraced by the city’s police force, which was hoping to find ways to lessen a growing call volume.

A city council committee meeting last month provided the first glimpse of the researchers' recommendations and the city’s planned timeline. City officials said they hope to start moving forward on the proposals by the start of next year.

"There are some calls that police officers would clearly prefer be handled by someone else," ASU professor Michael Scott told city councilmembers at the meeting. Scott is a professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and is taking the lead on the study.

Researchers, he said, were looking at how officers' duties might be narrowed to "tasks they are uniquely authorized, trained, and equipped to perform."

In 2019, the National Police Foundation (now called the National Policing Institute) released a study of Phoenix police, which examined the department’s use of deadly force. In the previous year, Phoenix cops shot 44 people, resulting in 23 deaths — the most killings by a single department in the nation that year.

The 70-page report offered dozens of findings and recommendations, including improved training and better documentation of officers’ use of force. One recommendation, though, noted that mental health issues appeared to play a major contributing role in violent encounters. Police and community groups agree. The foundation recommended that the city consider alternatives to police response in some cases.

"There was strong agreement that the police are not the best equipped to respond to mental health crisis but alternatives to police response are lacking in the city,” investigators wrote.

These findings prompted one focus of the ASU study, to examine how many Phoenix police calls involved some element of mental health crisis, and to consider alternatives. Heather Ross, a clinical associate professor at the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, is managing this piece of the research.

Over the past nine months, in ride-alongs and interviews with patrol officers, Ross said she began to get a sense of the scope of the problem. "In some areas [of the city], officers would tell me, 'Gosh, it feels like maybe a quarter of calls we go on have some mental health component,'" she told Phoenix New Times. Officers referenced a "vicious cycle," she said, in which they encountered the same people again and again, in the throes of mental illness.

To investigate how often police were responding to these situations, Ross’s team randomly chose a single day, March 4, 2020, and delved into the notes of each dispatched call, looking for indicators of a mental health crisis.

Out of around 2,000 dispatched calls that day, only 1.5 percent were coded as a mental health crisis call in the dispatch system. But, Ross said, records revealed that around another 7.5 percent appeared to be clearly related to mental illness, making the figure closer to one in 10.

Armed with these numbers, Ross said, “It becomes a little bit easier to justify having a more robust mental health service.” She envisioned this as a “holistic approach,” where such units might respond alongside officers.

At the end of August, Ross, Scott, and their fellow researchers will present the city with an in-depth report, detailing proposals on how to take action on these findings. However, they presented some of their preliminary recommendations at the city council committee meeting last month. They were flanked by police officials, who also support the plan.

Researchers identified eight call types that might be diverted from Phoenix officers and to other city departments, outside agencies, or non-sworn police employees. They include: vehicle crashes with no injuries, civil matters, welfare checks, noise complaints, parking complaints, intrusion alarms, abandoned vehicles, and found property calls.

Noise complaints, for instance, could be handled by the city's Neighborhood Services Department. Welfare checks — when "properly screened” for potential danger, Scott noted — might be directed to a behavioral health unit. Minor crashes could be handled by police assistants — civilian employees, not sworn officers — who would write up reports of the scenes.

The researchers also suggested an entirely new call code — "incorrigible juvenile" — that would be completely diverted from the police.

For parents, executive assistant police chief Michael Kurtenbach told city councilmembers, the police sometimes "become that fallback" when a parent's child misbehaves or refuses to go to school. "We want to handle that differently," Kurtenbach said. In these instances, unless a crime is involved, all such calls would not be handled by cops — instead, perhaps a social services agency — and be collected under the new call code.

Kurtenbach said he hoped the research would help reduce the call volume faced by officers — which have seen staffing numbers decrease — and lower response times.

City officials will need to nail down the specifics on how to start implementing the proposals. Lori Bays, the assistant city manager, said she expected to have concrete proposals for next steps by the end of the year.

They will likely require the city to staff up. “We would be looking to add positions for most of these items,” Bays said.

Activists urge city to take action

Jacob Raiford, a community organizer in Phoenix, does not often find himself on the same side as the Phoenix police. But he supports the ASU research and is glad that police officials have bought into the plan. Raiford thinks it’s telling, he told New Times, that police officials also believe that officers are handling calls they should not be, which he and other activists have maintained for years.

“It’s concrete proof,” Raiford said. "If these people can agree, there is a huge issue in this system."

Raiford, though, isn’t holding his breath. He said he worries about the timeline for implementing these reforms and whether the city will properly fund them.

While the city waits for ASU researchers to wrap up their proposal, it already has a new, expanded program to provide mental health services in lieu of police responses. Mayor Kate Gallego — under pressure on police reform issues in the months after the 2020 protests over Floyd's death — announced a $15 million investment in the city’s “community assistance program” in March 2021. The plan would provide behavioral health units to help respond to people in mental health crises.

Almost a year and a half later, though, the expanded program has yet to hit the streets.

The community assistance program is a longstanding program in the Phoenix Fire Department. For years, it largely functioned as a shoestring, volunteer-based victim support unit. Its crisis response units worked with people who experienced trauma at scenes of violent crime or serious accidents.

When the mayor announced her plan for the program, she promised consistent funding and 130 new positions. The crisis units would double from five to 10, and there would be nine new “behavioral health units” created, to respond to people with mental illness, in place of officers.

In 2020 and 2021, activists like Raiford had instead called for a new, independent crisis response unit — housed outside of police and fire — that could respond to such incidents. Raiford was a lead organizer with the “NOCAP” (the Neighborhood-Organized Crisis Assistance Program) coalition, which pushed for community involvement in the program. He suggested a community-led steering committee for the program.

It did not materialize.

Now, Raiford is frustrated that the city’s version of program has not yet begun. “We’re basically in the middle of summer now, and there is nothing that indicates that this is not only going to roll out, but roll out in a safe and effective manner,” he said. “I’m disappointed. I’m very disappointed.”

Originally, the city set out an 18- to 24-month timeline for full implementation of the program, according to 2021 budget documents. The city is not yet behind on that original schedule. In October 2021, the council approved a new one-year accelerated timeline, however, with a planned rollout in May and June.

In March, Jeanine L’Ecuyer, communications director for the mayor’s office, told New Times she believed the first unit would hit the streets in “late April to early May.” Reached again this week, L’Ecuyer said the program had experienced further delays. It was struggling to obtain the vehicles it needed to transport the units, she said.

D.C. Ernst, the program administrator for the committee assistance program, said in an interview that the vehicles and finding proper staffing had been obstacles. But Ernst expected the first new unit to be out in the streets by the end of July, she said.

The city will need to significantly staff up in the coming months to implement the program. Ashley Patton, the city's deputy communications director, told New Times that the expanded program required 86 full-time city employees. As of now, only about a quarter of those positions are filled, she said.

Original plans for the program that were approved in the 2021 budget, however, had included funding for 130 positions. Patton said that this was the total number of positions the program was expected to fill by the time it was fully implemented in the second year.

The nine behavioral health units will operate independently, going to scenes in lieu of police officers. Each unit would consist of one city employee and one employee from Terros Health, a mental health counseling organization contracted by the city for the program.

Police dispatch would screen 911 calls that might be appropriate for a community assistance program response, Ernst said. Callers would be asked questions about whether a mental health issue was the reason for their call, and whether there were weapons involved, to ensure the scene was safe.

The program would provide continued case management services after responding to calls, Ernst said, ensuring that the city was “building rapport” with people and providing follow-up contact, instead of a one-time response.

By the fall, then, the city should have these units partially operating, while it works on proposals for diverting police responsibilities, based on the ASU research.

But Raiford found it ironic that, after urgently approving massive raises for the police, the city had not shown similar commitment to its other plans. “The city just approved an exorbitant amount of money for [officers],” he said.

“And now, suddenly, they don’t have enough vans? They don’t have enough staffing? Why?”
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk