Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

A recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that only about five percent of 911 calls last year the New Orleans Police Department responded to were related to an alleged violent crime — and only around a quarter of calls NOPD responded to were crime related at all.  

Vera says that the numbers show that the city needs to develop and invest in non-police responses to a wider range of calls for service — something city leaders have been discussing and moving forward with in various capacities for years — so that people can get the specific type of help they need, and so officers can be available more quickly for calls where a police response is appropriate. 

“Maybe we don’t need an armed response on 95 percent of these calls” Dr. Kim Mosby, a researcher with Vera, told the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday. “Based on this analysis, we could support police officers by removing things from their plate, such as medical and mental health calls, complaints and disturbances, alarms, and checks and patrols.” 

Will Snowden, director of Vera’s New Orleans office, joined Mosby to present the findings to the council committee. 

They highlighted that most of the publicly initiated 911 calls that came in — around 57 percent — had to do with “public order,” which included complaints and disturbances, alarms, and checks and patrols. Twelve percent of NOPD responses, they said, were for emergency services, such as accidents or medical and mental health emergencies. 

Of the 62,000 calls that did come in response to criminal violations, Vera found that the majority were related to property crime. 

The presentation on Tuesday came as the police department continues to struggle with hiring and retaining officers, as well as skyrocketing response times for 911 calls. 

The department has responded by redeploying some officers to patrol shifts and announcing that it will add 75 new civilian positions that will be responsible for taking non-emergency police reports online and over the phone and helping with investigations. 

The city is also planning to put in place a city-wide alternative dispatch system for mental health emergencies by next summer. Earlier this month, Mayor LaToya Cantrell signed a $1.3 million contract with the non-profit Resources for Human Development to embed with OPCD and hire teams to respond to calls related to behavioral health

Meanwhile, last month the Orleans Parish Communications District, which handles the city’s 911 service, updated their protocols to more accurately delineate between emergency and non-emergency calls, by taking into account factors such as when the incident occurred and if a suspect was still on the scene. 

At the meeting on Tuesday, councilman Eugene Green suggested that there needs to be a better public understanding that 911 should not be used for non-emergency calls. He said that based on his conversations with police officers, there is a “high level of frustration” that they are frequently responding to calls that they don’t need to be responding to. 

Snowden and Mosby said the city should continue to lean on experts, such as social workers, health professionals, and peer support specialists to respond to calls that are not related to violent crimes. 

Councilman Oliver Thomas agreed, and said that he thought that by investing in non-police responses, the city could ultimately save money by helping to solve the underlying issues that lead to emergencies in the first place. 

Snowden said that while the report did not specifically analyze the potential savings that having alternative responses could create, he said that in general investing in preventative services reduces the ultimate cost that comes when people become entangled in the criminal legal system.  

“We’re getting back to that understanding that these services deployed are actually preventative investments,” Snowden said. “And thinking about how the prevention on the front end actually reduces the amount of contact that people are having with police officers in the first place. Sometimes we use this analogy that when a person is arrested is actually an indicator of some other system failing — and we think about the criminal legal system being the catch basin for the failures of those other systems.”

The city has announced that it will invest around $80 million dollars in the police department over the next three years to bolster recruitment, improve equipment and technology, and give raises to officers. But Vera has long advocated that to address the problem of crime, robust investments need to be made in other places as well — including mental health services and education. 

Snowden said that having alternative, non-police responses was part of that broader need. 

“When we deploy appropriate education responses, when we deploy appropriate social worker responses, we employ other alternatives in addition to policing — those are deployments in the spirit of prevention, which we know will have cost saving effects.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...