Members of Evanston’s Human Services Committee discussed at its meeting Wednesday evening partnering with two national nonprofits to build a new alternate response system for less urgent 911 calls.

LEAP Community Responder Model Credit: Alex Harrison

Council member Bobby Burns, (Fifth Ward) introduced two proposed agreements to the committee, one with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and another with FUSE Corps. Both were developed in the Reimagining Public Safety Committee, where Burns chairs the smaller working group named “Rethinking the Organizational Structure.”

In combination, the two nonprofits would help the city implement a system to redirect 911 dispatches for less dangerous calls, such as nuisance complaints and well-being checks, to civilian responders rather than sworn police officers.

Community responder model

LEAP is an advocacy organization of police officers, judges and other law enforcement experts focused on “criminal justice and drug policy reforms that will make our communities safer and more just,” according to its website. Program specialist Lionel King and speaker Mike Hilliard presented the organization’s Community Responder Model to the committee over Zoom.

The model would create a new group of unarmed, non-sworn staff to take over from police officers the responsibility to respond to calls unrelated to “serious crime.” Hilliard, a retired police major from Baltimore, said doing this would not only create a more appropriate response for the calls the staff would cover, but also would reduce the workload of overextended police officers.

“As many of you know, police departments are overwhelmed with short-staffing and with expanded responsibilities,” Hilliard said. “We see community responder programs as a way of relieving some of the pressure from the police and allowing them to focus on more serious crimes.”

The model’s potential overlap with Trilogy Behavior Healthcare’s First-response Alternative Crisis Team (FACT) was discussed, as Council Member Eleanor Revelle (Seventh Ward) shared that FACT is “ready to go 24/7 at the end of the month.” A major difference between the two is that while FACT currently relies on a separate hotline from 911, the community responder model would have 911 dispatchers directly route appropriate calls to the civilian responders.

Revelle stressed that the FACT responders have “very different expertise” and skill sets from the proposed community responders and asked if the two would be lumped together under the proposal.

Council Member Bobby Burns (Fifth Ward) on the dais at Wednesday’s Human Services Committee meeting. Credit: Alex Harrison

“This is not meant to replace, or disrupt, or slow down anything that Trilogy is doing,” Burns replied. “If anything it’s just adding on to our response to different service calls and continuing our effort to find, when appropriate, alternatives for police response.”

The partnership would consist of three phases: a needs assessment based on 911 call narratives and existing systems in the city and community; a design process that collects input from community members and stakeholders, city officials, police officers and 911 dispatchers to create a program outline for Evanston; and implementing and rolling out the program.

The resolution was passed unanimously, and will be introduced to the full City Council on Sept. 12.

FUSE’s Executive Fellow recruitment

While LEAP will provide the framework and analysis for this proposed system, the executive fellowship organization FUSE Corps will provide the muscle and brains to implement it.

The agreement with FUSE would provide the city with an “executive fellow” for one year to help manage and implement alternative 911 response projects with LEAP and the Reimagining Public Safety Committee. Nicole Richardson, FUSE’s director of strategic partnerships, told the committee over Zoom that their fellows are executive-level experts with 15 to 20 years of experience in their fields, and are hired to be “laser-focused” on a specific project area for the local government that hires them.

“A lot of times, FUSE fellows are in the position of project managing, taking the lead, taking the charge on a new issue area of work, an emerging area,” Richardson said. “So that is very much a role that these fellows are used to playing, because of that executive search where we can find exactly the skill set that you need.”

Burns added that even though the city has not yet officially partnered with FUSE, a preliminary project description the organization posted yielded 45 to 50 interested applicants for the Reimagining Public Safety Committee fellowship.

He said the committee would benefit greatly from the expertise of an executive fellow, as “all too often” the city’s ambitious projects do not have assigned staff to actually implement them.

“We claim as though we want to do transformational work and make a big impact, and then we have like one or zero staff members dedicated to it,” Burns said. “All of this is about matching our staff with what we say we want to do in these areas. That’s all this really is across the board, whether it’s climate action, whether it’s housing, whether it’s our public safety work.”

The committee approved the agreement on a 3-1 vote, with Revelle voting against. It will also be introduced at the Sept. 12 City Council meeting.

Alex Harrison reports on local government, public safety, developments, town-gown relations and more for the RoundTable. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June...