Sometime during the pandemic (my sense of time is addled), a new neighbor moved into the lower level of my building. She kept different hours than I did, going out late at night dressed to the nines and coming home very loudly in the middle of the night. Mostly, that’s just what apartment living is, living differently than the people who share your walls. Russell from downstairs works night shift at the front desk of an airport hotel, and we usually say good morning when I’m walking Fran. I’m sure I disturb Alexis, who lives underneath me, when I get up at the crack of dawn to write prayers on Sunday mornings, when she’s barely gotten home from her Saturday night out. I sort of like sharing walls with people and learning the patterns of their lives.
But this new neighbor didn’t really ever establish patterns. She got up and went to work in scrubs early most mornings, but nothing else ever resolved into predictability. As the weeks went by, it became clear that her new apartment was a place of refuge for a big network of young people. Folks came, stayed a while, got their feet under them, and moved on. I was annoyed at the lack of consistency and revolving door of neighbors, but I also came to have a grudging respect for how this young woman was created stability for a bunch of very young folks, and started to feel a certain protectiveness for them all.
But then one person came, and stayed. They were clearly intertwined in an intense relationship with the woman who had signed the lease, and the relationship got volatile. There were lots of screaming matches, some out in the parking lot. And then the screaming matches got physical. They’d fight, and the building would shake. I wasn’t sure what to do or how to intervene. Friends suggested I let these neighbors know that I was glad to offer a space of refuge or help, but I couldn’t even tell which person was the instigator or abuser and which one was being hurt the most. Usually, the fights would flare up and out pretty quickly, but one night, the building shaking went on, and on, and on, and on. I finally went out into the hallway, where another neighbor, Anna, was also looking worried. “Should we call the police?” I asked, wary of what extra violence and burden that might bring. “Yes,” she said. “I’m calling.”
The fighting neighbors were both young, Black, queer people. The two Durham City Policemen who arrived were very young, white, blonde men, with guns. I did not feel safer with the police and their guns present in the building, and I KNOW my fighting neighbors didn’t either. When the cops knocked on their door and announced who they were, the apartment went quiet. One of the neighbors silently left out the back door. There was no more fighting that night, and the police left without ever interacting with my fighting neighbors, a relief for all of us. A couple months later, those neighbors moved out, and I still wonder where they are and how they’re doing.
You’ve probably heard the slogan “Defund the Police,” maybe even read about the abolition movement where that phrase originated. I’ve lived a pretty police-avoidant life, mostly because of my race and class and not because of any particular commitment to clean living. But I have learned from friends and neighbors that in situations involving BIPOC or poor people, calling the police is hardly ever the right move, because police make a situation *more* volatile, bring guns and threat of arrest into conflict, and have a documented history of assaulting, harming and killing the people they are called to interact with. “Unless someone is actively dying,” a neighbor once told me, “we do not call the police. Ever.”
Here in Durham, folks have been organizing for years to shift safety and wellness practices out of the hands of police and into the hands of the community. I have been less active in this work as I might have been, my involvement confined to giving money and signing petitions, but I have been paying attention, too. In 2019, the coalition won their campaign to establish a city office of Community Safety. I 2021, the City shifted funding from 5 open police officer positions and $1 million from the County budget to begin a pilot program. In June of this year, the city deployed its first HEART (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team) teams – unarmed teams of licensed mental health clinicians, peer support folks, and EMTs – to divert 911 calls away from armed police response. If a 911 call comes through the dispatch that is about a suicide threat, a mental health crisis, trespassing, welfare checks, an intoxicated person, panhanding, nuisance, prostitution, public indecency or a lost person (where the person doesn’t have a weapon and isn’t being violent toward others), a HEART team goes to the scene instead of police officers. In some other, more dangerous situations, the Office of Community Safety is piloting a project that sends mental health clinicians out on certain kinds of calls WITH police officers, an attempt to de-escalate situations AND research just how many kinds of calls for help might be served by unarmed response teams.
You can learn more about these programs on Durham’s own website, in local news and in this feature spot with Sanjay Gupta on CNN. The data is overwhelming. Check out the city’s dashboard and you’ll see that the new initiative has responded to over 2,000 calls in the last 5 months (and, if they had the capacity, could have responded to over 6,000), that the unarmed responders felt safe 99% of the time, and that more than 3/4 of the situations were resolved immediately on the scene.
The HEART responders weren’t up and running when my neighbor called the police for the domestic disturbance in our building. Even now, a domestic violence call would be one that triggered a “Co-Response Team” visit – maybe a trained mental health professional would have arrived alongside those two young, white, armed policemen. But I read that during one of the HEART team conversations, the neighbor in need of assistance saw their white van and teal shirts arrive on the scene and said, “Oh, I was hoping it would be you guys who showed up!” The pilot program was only operating in a certain geographic area, and confined to weekday business hours. But already, the results have been so promising that the city has added a second team of HEART responders and expanded to 24/7 coverage.
And that, my friends, is hopeful. Another way of responding to need, put into practice, right here in my city. Not cable-news vitriol, not partisan bumper stickers, not empty talk: a real, creative, publicly funded, community supported, on-the-ground alternative, proving its worth and effectiveness in real time. I am so glad to live here in Durham, where hope and HEART walk the streets in teal t-shirts every day.