What's Your Emergency?: Finding Community-based Alternatives to 911

By Evie Lacroix


When there is a problem, a domestic disturbance, a robbery, or gun fire on your block, from a young age people are trained to dial 911. The police or fire department come, they handle the situation and the community is safe again.


In minority communities as well as for people in the mental health community, calling the 911 for police response is not a black and white issue. It often leads to violence or death, and this has some thinking about what can be done to protect each other. People are using restorative justice techniques and networking within communities to build safe spaces open to dialogue and change on a community or neighborhood level.


“Can we think through every time if there is an alternative to a situation instead of calling the police right now?” said Jane Hereth social worker and former volunteer for Chain Reaction. “It starts with having conversations with your neighbors, getting to know your neighbors from the get go and creating a climate that is already practicing ideas of restorative justice before big issues come up.”


This is what Chain Reaction aimed for when it was created.


Chain Reaction was a youth centric project of Project Nia. From 2011 to 2013, adult volunteers workshopped with LGBTQ+ youth as well as youth of color to tell their stories of police encounters. The ultimate goal of the project was to create a tool kit giving strategies to alternative to policing that centered around restorative justice.


“There is a nationwide wide message that we have all received that not only are the police who you call when you have a conflict or situation, but when someone has harmed you the response should be that they get punished for what they did,” Hereth said. “there needs to be a cultural shift from ‘someone harmed me’ to ‘I need the opportunity to process and talk with that person about that experience and I need that person to hear that and take accountability for fixing it’.”


These workshops used the idea of safe spaces and mentorship to get youth to start thinking about alternatives to calling the police. When there is an inherent distrust of the policing system because of the interactions youth have with police, there becomes a need for different solutions to de escalate situations and solve problems.


“One young person talked about a time they were able to resolve a conflict with a friend without calling the police and instead were able to sit down and talk about it,” Hereth said. “They talked about creative strategies that involved talking to each other to address conflicts face to face rather than having an outside police officer try to resolve and take ownership of the situation.”


Chain Reaction volunteers then used the audio stories and tool kits in their own communities because youth are not the only people with conflicts that can be resolved in other ways.


“We didn't want to tell people what the alternatives to calling the police are because they are so different for every community,” Hereth said. “People need to figure out what works in their community.”


Crista Noel, the founder of  Women’s All Point Bulletin, a nonprofit that helps women who have experienced violence during police encounters, tries to balance her experiences with the safety of her community.


“I don't hate the police,” Noel said. “We are very clear there  are certain police officers that need to go, but you need a balanced point of view. We are not out to tell communities that are experiencing violence and shootings that they don’t need someone to come in with guns that can handle situations that we [community members] should be handling. We are not abolitionists.”


While it is important to have police as a system for when situations escalate past what community members can handle.  There are still situations where restorative justice techniques can come into play.


“Our community does call 911 a little too much,” Noel said. “ I remember a women got up at a police board meeting and  said she was calling 911 for the boys playing drums out on the corner. Really? We have to take more control of their community.”


When Noel was growing up she remembers her community to be woven together by a network of elders. In the 60s, 70s and 80s everyone knew everyone on the block. Everyone knew everyone’s business. People were not afraid to talk to one another.


When mass incarceration of black men intertwined with the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, there became a shift in family dynamics that shifted dynamics of black and brown communities.


“There is a lot off work we have to do, but a lot of it is beyond the police,” Noel said. “ It is work we have to do in the community, we have to go old school.”


The old school approach is going out and talking to neighbors and reclaiming communities from past fears. When communities and neighborhoods become more dependent on one another, the dependency on calling 911 lessens.


“And that is when you are dealing with restorative justice,” Noel said. “I don't want to call the police, I am walking to your house ringing your doorbell and saying ‘mama get your boy’.”


Distrust in the police: the intersection of being black and mentally ill


In light of the fatal police shootings of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones on December 26, 2015 and a history of racist practices by CPD, calling 911 becomes a carefully thought about decision for some in the black and brown communities of Chicago because of a fear of the unknown of what will happen once police arrive.


“There’s an element of fear in everything,” said N’Dana Carter spokeswoman for Mental Health Movement. “When we consider that, often times individuals guard their family members and are so afraid, especially those that are caretakers who have family members struggling with mental illness, are often times more afraid of the consequences their loved ones may face of injury by chicago police department.”


LeGrier’s case is not alone either, The Washington Post reported about a quarter of the 1000 police shootings they were able to track in 2015 was related to mental illness.


When a mental illness crisis is being called into 911, operators are supposed to flag them as “Code Z” so Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) can be deployed, and a peaceful resolution can be reached.


But according to the Police Accountability Task Force Report, In 2015 out of the 5 million calls made to 911 dispatch, 25,000 of those calls were initially classified as mental health related calls. National trends show three to 10 percent of calls made to any 911 dispatch center are related to mental health a year, suggesting an additional 50,000-220,000 calls were related to mental health in Chicago in 2015.


The call by LeGrier’s father that got operators to send police was not one 25,000 flagged calls, leaving cops untrained in dealing with mental health crisis on the doorstep.


This lack of tagging mental health Crisis leads to Cook County Jail to becoming the largest mental health provider in Chicago. At any given time there is an average of 25-30 percent of inmates self identifying as mental health needs.  Cook County Jail treats more mentally ill people than any other public provider. This is largely  because of the six of the 12 mental health clinics that were shut down by Rahm Emanuel in 2012, for still undisclosed reasons. After half of the publicly funded clinics became defunct, a lot of people lost their source of treatment.


On top of this, Carter says it will not be safe for people, especially people of color, to call for mental health crisis until racism within CPD is abolished.


Unless we have a situation where people are encouraged, trained to understand that people of color are just human beings, we are easily identified, and I always carry the burden.” Carter said, “[Unless] white people, people that are in control of the media and the politics and the law began to see me as a human being, things will not change. I can't keep praying for you to change.”


Carter believes CPD needs better standards to hiring police. “There has got to be a more fair analysis of who they are hiring, you’ve got a racist father, a racist brother, a racist uncle, and then they hire the racist nephew, the racist grandson, the racist son. You’ve got generations of racists in the police office, so it first begins with the selection.”


Until there is systematic change within CPD, Carter uses her community at Mental Health Movement to help people with mental health crisis.


“Valuing every person that is a part of our struggle, whether or not they know it, I want people to understand the normalcy of mental illness and mental wellness,” Carter said. “The first thing we want is people to feel comfortable in the space that they are living, in their head. We want you to understand that you have to act, and you have the right to act, and if you don’t act you might lose all of those rights. We remind people that no one has the right to disrespect you.”


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s website, the best way to deal with potential mental health crisis is by building one's own community of support and not by calling the police first.


If you live with a mental health condition, it's important to plan ahead. Talk with your treatment team can think about where to go for intensive treatment and how to get there, how to take time off work or explain your absence to others, and what methods you can use to calm yourself in an emergency.


Above all, you and those closest to you should know how to reach your mental health professionals in case of an emergency.”

Noel also believes that there are other ways better ways to descalate mental health crisis without calling the police as the first solution.

“Why are you bringing an armed individual for someone that has a mental health problem?” Noel said. “The majority of people with psychosocial disabilities are not violent.”

For situations where there is a knife or baseball bat that is being wielded, police should be coming in with a taser, not guns drawn.

“[Police] become executioner in a state where we don't execute people,” Noel said.”They should never have a shoot to kill mindset.”


Thinking about community safety and calling 911 on a larger scale, innovators have to think outside the box if change is to happen.


One off the tensions in this work is trying to envision what future alternatives might look like  when we are trying to envision a world we have never lived in,” Hereth said. “So, we have to be really creative about what that looks like because we have never seen it in this world, while also acknowledging that we have to continue to live in this world where sometimes our options are more limited than what we would like.”




Technology as a bypass to making the call to 911

In 2010, Northern Illinois University freshman  Antinette "Toni" Keller’s body was found in a park days after she told friends she was going out to take a walk. The park was blocks away from Joe Parisi’s house, a senior at NIU at the time. The incident dumbfounded him and his knowledge of cellphone technology.

I remember thinking to myself if she had her cell phone with her, why wasn’t she able to get help?” Parisi said. “Up until this point of my life I had assumed that if you were in trouble you could grab a phone unlock it and dial for help, but it didn't work for her.”

This spurred him to research 911 systems and make them more efficient with 21st century technology. He created Guard Llama, a FOB like device that when tapped sends your information to the local 911 dispatch center to send police to your exact location taken from your cellphone. No information on what kind of assistance is needed is sent to officers.

911 dispatch centers are not like the movies, where cellphones can be triangulated by cell towers. In Order for police or firefighters to get to your location, callers have to give an address as specific as possible.

It is a huge problem for police because often times they are dispatched and they know someone is in trouble but the location given is completely arbitrary,” Parisi said.

For officers, it is not a problem that they don't know the nature of the call going in because location is seen as more important.

Officers love it because they love they can get dispatched to a location and know exactly where they are going,” Parisi said. “That is the biggest part of their job finding where they are going and getting there.

Guard Llama has 2,000 nationwide users. Most users are female, and 30 years of age. They are likely to work in industries where they locally travel a lot: nurses, realtors, or in home caregivers.

The most common situations Guard Llama is used for is Domestic disturbances and sexual assaults. Situations where the user can discreetly call police without giving suspicion to the offender.

Staffed by six workers that work three shift increments, their private 24/7 dispatch center receives two to three calls a day.

“There is not an abundance of data from chicago people being in trouble, it is fairly scattered. We get equal amounts of alarms from New York or Florida,” Parisi said. “It is a little more nitch in the way people use it. If we had more of a general population saturation I would expect to see large spikes in the summer time and wallows in the winter because that is how crimes works.”

Guard Llama is filling in the gap that a crumbling national infrastructure has yet to fill by being able to quickly and discreetly alert police.


“I think we are going to continue  to revolutionize the way people get help and become the actual standard the government lives up to as they build infrastructure to help the general population,” Parisi said. “We found this gap in terms of what they offer and our private company is able to fill that gap.”