Over 200 Washtenaw County community members met over Zoom Wednesday night to discuss the implementation of an unarmed safety response team for the county. Led by members of the Coalition for Re-Envisioning Our Safety (CROS) — as well as several other sponsored organizations — the forum discussed the need for non-police responses to community crises as well as a path to implementation within the county. 

Donnell Wyche, pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, spoke first about CROS and its dedication to community-led work. In late January 2022, CROS released a statement on their idea of what an unarmed response team in Ann Arbor could look like. Wyche said the organization will prioritize transformative justice and building care-based safety within the community when considering methods of implementation. 

“CROS is a group of folks who’ve come together to ensure that this process and program that is being created is community-led, it’s evidence based and that it is progressive,” Wyche said.

Wyche continued to explain how the proposed unarmed safety response team will encourage people to move away from the typical model of a 911 call to police. 

“When you think of the majority of the calls that come into a dispatch center, over 83% of those calls do not require someone who’s been authorized with a weapon to respond,” Wyche said. “Only 17% of the calls might fit someone’s definition of crime. It might be petty larceny or maybe property crime, but only 4% of those are what someone might categorize as violent crime.”

The Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution in April 2021, calling for an unarmed response program to answer any non-violent emergency calls in place of a police response in the city. Since the approval, CROS has been developing plans for the “care-based” community program. An update in December proposed an increased presence of healthcare workers to assist in non-violent response situations such as mental health crises.

Currently there are six active unarmed response programs across the country, one of the first being in Eugene, OR, as well as 13 pilot programs and 15 proposed programs across the nation. Wyche, CROS and other organizations at the forum said they hope this meeting will help Ann Arbor begin the process of being added to the list of active programs.

Throughout the event, members of the forum emphasized the urgency for Ann Arbor City Council to fund the creation of a new dispatch number, which would allow for people to respond to crises better suited to not having a police presence. Such crises might include domestic violence calls, drug overdose situations or even just neighborly disputes.

Sheri Wander, a leader at the Daytime Warming Center in Ann Arbor, spoke about the importance of caring for the community and shared her personal experience with a member who was seeking help after an overdose.

“I didn’t know what the hell to do,” Wander said. “I asked the man overdosing what he needed, and collectively we figured it out. Had his friends called the police when he OD’d, it would’ve been a different experience. But it was his community taking care of him in whatever ways we knew how at that moment.”

Erin Keith, the managing policy counsel for the Detroit Justice Center and forum panelist, spoke on times when police presence can be more adequately substituted for community-based efforts. Keith noted a disproportionate number of police interactions with Black community members have turned deadly and cited her own fears of police as a Black woman herself.

“We have in our bodies a tightness and anxiety when we see (police) lights behind us,” Keith said. “We never know how (the interaction is) going to go.”

Public Health student Alex Parks, a member of CROS, told The Michigan Daily after the forum the response force could also help students who might be too nervous to call police during instances of substance abuse or sexual assault for fear of reprecussions. 

“(The University of Michigan) has already tried to do some stuff around decriminalizing alcohol consumption for minors, but obviously students are engaging in these (activities) and are not going to call the police if they need help,” Parks said. “I think this option would be awesome for students.”

As of January 2018, the Minor in Possession law (MIP) was revised to mandate first violations of underage alcohol consumption as a civil infraction, rather than a misdemeanor. U-M students that receive a MIP will still face additional repercussions, such as educational and restorative consequences. The University has also provided resources to educate students about illegal alcohol consumption. 

Social Work student Bri Carpenter, a team leader for Avalon Housing’s outreach team, was one of the panelists at the event. Carpenter noted that the idea of community-based care might not be as radical as it might seem on the surface.

“At one time, abolishing slavery was seen as too radical,” Carpenter said. “If there weren’t folks who were willing to push back and risk their lives, where would we be at this point?” 

Hoai An Pham, one of the event organizers and Liberate! Don’t Incarcerate member, told The Daily after the forum that CROS and its partners are ready to move forward with implementation of the program as soon as the city agrees with their plan.

“This plan is care-based, research-informed and community-led,” Pham said. “The next step is simply for the city to implement the CROS plan with the funds from the RFP (request for proposal) process. We feel as though we are ready for the city to commit to its constituents.” 

Although the implementation of the plan will have to wait for funding approved by Ann Arbor City Council, panelist Yodit Mesfin Johnson shared her thoughts on the ways that community members can continue to take care of one another until a more organized system is established.

“(Helping our community) really is in our daily and everyday actions,” Johnson said. “If you see someone in the street, take a second look before you call the police. Assume the best … It’s block by block, it’s community by community, and each of us believing in our shared humanity.”

Daily News Reporter Isabella Kassa can be reached at ikassa@umich.edu.