In April 2021, the Ann Arbor City Council adopted a resolution directing the city administrator to implement an unarmed public safety response program team. The resolution argued that an unarmed response team could better assist individuals facing mental health crises and human services challenges, like homelessness and substance abuse, as compared to police officers. Over two years later, The Michigan Daily spoke with city officials and community activists to understand Ann Arbor’s progress toward this goal.
In an interview with The Daily, City Administrator Milton Dohoney said the city has already completed the community engagement process, which sought to collect feedback from an array of stakeholders through group discussions and interviews. Dohoney said the city staff would soon submit final recommendations to the City Council based on the findings and expects City Council to follow up with a contract-bidding process to determine who would implement the program.
“Ultimately, we want the City Council to act upon the recommendation that we make,” Dohoney said. “Then we would go forward with an RFP and that would be seeking a vendor or contractor that would actually implement the unarmed response program. So conceptually, it’s not a program that the city will be doing itself. We will contract with someone external to the city government to run.”
Previous police reform advocacy and actions
In November 2014, police officer David Ried fatally shot Aura Rosser, who had been suffering from a mental health crisis, in Westside Ann Arbor while responding to a call about a domestic dispute. Brian Mackie, Washtenaw County Prosecutor at the time of the shooting, said the use of force was justified as officers reported that Rosser was holding a knife and refused to drop it. Mackie’s decision not to bring charges against the officer responsible for Rosser’s death was met with backlash from Ann Arbor community members who believed Rosser should have recused himself from the case due to the close relationship between local prosecutors and the police.
The incident happened only three months after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., prompting nationwide protests against police brutality. Soon after, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office held a community forum intended to build trust between law enforcement and civilians and prevent similar events from taking place in Washtenaw County.
In 2019, the city established the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission to increase the transparency of the Ann Arbor Police Department. In an interview with The Daily, Lisa Jackson, one of its founding members, said the process of establishing the police oversight framework as well as the continuous accounts of negative interactions with law enforcement have pushed her to focus more on alternatives to policing.
“I think the police have the ability to improve,” Jackson said. “But I think that trying to change police culture, overall, will take decades, and I think it will take a very special person to do that. In the interim, there are people who deserve care and safety who will never ever call the police.”
Ann Arbor is not the first city to explore the possibility of establishing an unarmed team as an alternative to police for responding to mental health crises. In 1989, Eugene, Ore. became one of the first cities to deploy mental health professionals instead of police officers to assist people experiencing mental health issues. Since then, other cities including San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. have sought to model Eugene’s program.
Councilmember Erica Briggs, D-Ward 5, was one of the council members who initially introduced the resolution to create an unarmed response team in Ann Arbor. In an interview with The Daily, she said the funding the city received through the American Rescue Plan Act made this vision financially possible. In April 2022, the City Council voted to allocate $3.5 million from the ARPA fund for a pilot of the unarmed crisis response team.
“Before I got into City Council in 2020, there was already significant community advocacy around the idea of developing an unarmed crisis response,” Briggs said. “As folks are doing research around ‘What are the models for having mental health responses?’ unarmed crisis response is something that has emerged from research across the nation, and so especially when we had access to additional funds to the ARPA funding, this (seemed) like the appropriate time for us to begin exploring what that would look like in our community.”
Leveraging the existing community resources
In August 2022, Ann Arbor launched a program called “Supportive Connections,” which connects people to social services in hopes of addressing underlying factors in crime including substance abuse and mental health issues. Dohoney said that while the program was developed independently of the unarmed crisis response team, it still provides important insight on how to provide social services without police involvement.
“Ann Arbor is attempting to serve its residents in a variety of ways with different approaches,” Dohoney said. “So we created Supportive Connections to help people stay out of the judicial system, to help connect them to services. The response program that we’re working on setting up hopefully will be a model that will respond and help people resolve issues in a manner that doesn’t require the police department to do.”
Karen Field, program director of Supportive Connections, told The Daily in an interview that while it is a small program, they face very high demand.
“We have a case manager and myself,” Field said. “There are two people. We started taking referrals since November and we have had 66 participants referred to the program. We can provide assistance such as mental health treatments, substance abuse treatments, and we have funding for some other things such as identification and school fees.”
Field said the most frequently cited need is housing, but Supportive Connections does not run its own shelter due to limited funding. According to Field, this means people still need to apply through the county’s system, which is experiencing a backlog, to access temporary housing.
Community expectations of the program
In a city survey conducted at the end of 2022, 93.1% of respondents indicated that they support the creation of the unarmed response team. In addition, 62.9% of the respondents said that they would prefer to access the team through a phone number different from 911.
Dohoney said while the details of the program are still in the works, he has set out general expectations based on the community engagement process and the city’s capacity.
“The response team will be led by a contractor, and their staff and the city government will figure out what their role is,” Dohoney said. “In fact, I would be a little surprised if the unarmed response program is going to dispatch people walking through downtown. It would be more likely to be that people call and say ‘I have a situation, can you send an unarmed response?’ ”
William Lopez, assistant professor at the School of Public Health and a member of Coalition for Re-Envisioning Our Safety, a community organization raising awareness about the benefits of an unarmed response team, told The Daily in an interview that he hopes to see organizational separation of the unarmed team from the police department. Lopez said one step toward achieving this is having a phone number independent from 911 to request an unarmed crisis response.
“Armed officers inherently escalate the risk of firearm violence over the absence of an armed officer,” Lopez said. “And lots of the officer training is responding with force to dangerous situations. In cases where the situation isn’t dangerous, it may be easy to interpret it as dangerous and therefore respond with violence.”
Councilmember Linh Song, D-Ward 2, another councilmember involved in the initial proposal, told The Daily in an interview that she was inspired by the unanimous support for this program from two city councils and she is eager to see an unarmed team come to fruition.
“It wasn’t a controversial program when it came to the council table,” Song said. “Both our police chief(s) at the time, and now our interim police chief supports this too. I think we’ve kind of exhausted ourselves talking about it, and we’re really, really ready to implement it.”
Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at email@example.com.