Columbus officials praise pilot program that uses social workers instead of police for drug, mental health emergencies

Columbus officials praise pilot program that uses social workers instead of police for drug, mental health emergencies
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The Alternative Response Pilot Program, a part-time pilot program in Columbus, Ohio, has been a large success for the city, leading officials to plan an expansion of the program, city officials announced Thursday.

The pilot program, which consists of a "Triage Pod" of a social worker, emergency communications dispatcher and paramedic, aims to cut down police involvement in mental health, drug addiction or other social issues in emergency situations. 

Of the calls received by the Pod, 62.5 percent did not need immediate police or fire department intervention. According to the statement, 48 percent of the calls were either completely resolved by the dispatcher or redirected to local community resources. When calls required a law enforcement response, the Pod "actively communicated with first responders, providing de-escalation and pre-arrival information to help ensure a successful outcome."

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"What this program so clearly demonstrates is the need to strengthen and diversify our front-line responses so that police officers can focus on what they were always intended to do: address violent crime and keep our neighborhoods safe," Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. 

On average, the Pod handled 56 incidents, or about one every hour and 15 minutes, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Data was collected for 72 operational hours between June 2 and July 7.

The program comes after multiple anti-police protests erupted last year after the police killing of George Floyd. Many protesters called on officials to initiate fundamental changes to the police system. 

“Society has long asked safety officers to answer every problem in our community, whether it is a car crash, homelessness or violence,” said City Council President Shannon Hardin. “This pilot led to more follow-up for residents in need of resources, no one going to jail, and a better deployment of taxpayer dollars. The city will continue making improvements to build out this program through partnerships, research and iteration.”

City officials said they plan to increase the Pod’s hours of operation and build additional triage and follow-up units.