To deal with nonviolent incidents, the city of Olympia in Washington has created the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) comprising unarmed mental health specialists.
These specialists, also known as crisis responders, respond to 911 calls for help involving individuals experiencing mental illness, drug addiction, or homelessness.
The need for creating a team of crisis responders was strongly felt following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, which led to nationwide protests demanding reduced police presence in communities.
Olympia was first to react and hired six-full time CRU employees and four substitutes using funds from a 2017 public safety levy.
According to an analysis by the Washington Post, almost 1 in 4 fatal police shootings involve mental illness.
Instead of taking the police’s help to solve problems involving minors or someone with a psychotic disorder, the crisis responders resolve the issue by interacting with the individual and connecting them with services.
It minimizes the chances of the situation escalating into violence and prevents people from landing in jail – something that even a well-trained, an armed officer could not do.
This approach is gaining popularity in cities across the U.S., as revealed in a survey by Data for Progress in June 2020. In the survey, 68 percent of voters supported the CRU.
Apart from responding to 911 calls for help, the first responders keep patrolling the streets of Olympia and helping people in need. Though they do not carry weapons, crisis responders call radio dispatchers for help when they feel unsafe.
Talking about how people react to the work of CRU members, CRU members Christopher Jones and Aana Sundling said that people find it comfortable interacting with them and appreciate the approach of an unarmed social worker, rather than an armed police officer.
Sundling and Jones also said that both the CRU and Olympia police officers work in sync and work together in crises.