OPINION: Local initiative seeks problem-solving beyond policing

In April, there were 62 community referral requests in Atlanta to Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiatives (PAD) mostly to address citizen concerns about homelessness and poverty. (Amanda Woomer, courtesy of PAD)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

In April, there were 62 community referral requests in Atlanta to Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiatives (PAD) mostly to address citizen concerns about homelessness and poverty. (Amanda Woomer, courtesy of PAD)

On a chilly morning in March, Brittany Molinaro was working in her home office when about 10 a.m. she heard a knock at the door. She peeked out of the window to see an adult man on her doorstep crying.

“Something told me to open the door,” said Molinaro, who lives in East Lake.

She thought he might ask for money but instead the 40-something man — wearing no jacket and worn shoes — began to tell her a story.

His girlfriend had kicked him out, he said, then punched him and left him in the area with no cellphone and no identification. The man seemed scared and frazzled. His story jumped from one place to the next. Finally, he reached out and handed Molinaro a slip of paper with a phone number on it.

“Can you call the shelter that takes men and tell them to come and pick me up?” he said.

Molinaro is accustomed to strangers knocking on her door. It comes with the territory of living on the corner of a busy street. Years earlier, a man had collapsed in front of her house, and when a jogger alerted them, her husband called 911. They watched as responding officers handled the man roughly, assuming he was intoxicated when in fact, it turned out to be a medical emergency.

It was a scene Molinaro couldn’t erase from her mind.

This time, she knew she needed a different response.

She scrolled through her phone and pulled up a number she had jotted down in January from the neighborhood Facebook page — a non-emergency number that residents could call instead of calling police.

In the national conversation about policing, the debate has been centered around one phrase —- “defund the police.” There is plenty of confusion about what that means, but even proponents of reforms that would involve scrapping an entire police force and starting over still believe there needs to be some investment in public safety.

What gets lost in the conversation is exactly how reallocating funds to other sectors can be more beneficial in reducing crime and violence than continued inflation of police budgets. In Atlanta, almost one-third of the $670 million general fund goes to police services, and for the coming fiscal year, a 7% increase would take police funding to $230 million.

The Policing Alternatives and Diversion (PAD) Initiative is designed to reduce incarceration and arrest rates of people experiencing problems related to poverty, mental health or substance abuse. PAD’s team is comprised of paid staffers who respond immediately to community concerns, reducing police involvement and connecting individuals in need to social services. On Monday, the city of Atlanta is voting on proposed funding to PAD of $1.5 million, which amounts to less than 1% of spending on public safety.

PAD has had a presence in Atlanta since 2017, but in January, it began expanding to include referrals from law enforcement as an alternative to arrests in all Atlanta Police Department zones, said Community Engagement Manager, Clara Totenberg Green. The initiative also partnered with the city’s 311 line to receive community referrals for certain non-emergency issues. By late June, PAD services will be available to all police officers and residents in the city of Atlanta. In addition to raising community awareness, PAD continues to train officers with APD, MARTA and Georgia Tech on how to divert individuals to PAD before making an arrest.

When Molinaro called PAD, an operator asked her for a physical description of the man seated on her porch. She described his logo T-shirt, black tennis shoes and khaki pants. While on the phone, she told the man she was talking to the non-emergency number and asked if he was willing to share his name.

In the few minutes it took Molinaro to bring him a coat, food and water, a PAD caseworker called to ask a few more questions before sending resources officers to the house. Molinaro went back to work.

East Lake is just one of 242 neighborhoods in the city of Atlanta, and each one has unique characteristics, said Green. While PAD offers the same services across the city, knowing the characteristics of an area helps them to be more proactive in their outreach. “If we know an area has a population of folks struggling with homelessness, we can target that neighborhood in building relationships with the unhoused community before the calls come in, for example,” Green said.

On a busy stretch of Edgewood Avenue where restaurant and bar owners struggled with an overload of individuals with mental health issues, business owners feared the cases were not a good fit for PAD, but they did not want to call police. PAD worked with other community partners to develop a resource guide to provide business owners with other alternatives, Green said, such as calling 911 to request a Grady 7170 team, a mobile psychiatric unit. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough resources available.

“For far too long, our country has invested heavily in punishing and incarcerating people instead of building a robust social safety net,” Green said. “We know the impact has been devastating across the board. We know that when we heavily invest in policing and incarceration, more behavior is criminalized and more people are arrested for quality-of-life issues. We are really trying something different.”

In April there were 62 community referral requests in Atlanta to Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiatives, mostly to address resident concerns about homelessness and poverty. (Image: Amanda Woomer courtesy of PAD)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

The PAD team arrived at Molinaro’s house within 20 minutes, she said. They announced their arrival and sat outside talking to the man for an hour. She thought they would show up and whisk him away in a car, but instead they were taking their time. “I kept checking and they were putting him at ease,” Molinaro said. “Their presence was very calming.” When they knocked to tell her they were leaving, the man was no longer crying. He was smiling and went with them willingly, she said.

Green has thought a lot about the ways PAD can make a difference in Atlanta communities. She has thought a lot about what might have happened if PAD had been in place when Rayshard Brooks was shot by an APD officer in the parking lot of Wendy’s last summer. What if the Wendy’s worker had the option to call 311 instead of 911 to report an intoxicated man asleep in the drive-thru lane? What if the police officers on the scene could have called PAD instead of moving to arrest Brooks? What if they had not shot and killed him?

From January through April, PAD received 202 calls to 311 and had 85 law enforcement diversions. Green said the response points to the community’s desire to handle things differently. Could law enforcement officers be incentivized to make more diversions instead of writing tickets or making arrests? “We should be proactively investing in a new approach and not doing the same thing we have been doing for decades,” Green said.

Two days after the man showed up on Molinaro’s doorstep, she got a call from the PAD caseworker letting her know they had found a place for the man to stay and had enrolled him in an assistance program. Two days after that, the man appeared at her door again.

He had a haircut, new clothes, new shoes and said agency workers were helping him get a new identification card. Molinaro was struck by the humanity and compassion the PAD officers showed to the man and the difference it had made for him.

“People get hung up on what they think defund the police means and I think this is a great example of one other resource we can offer our community,” Molinaro said. “I understand crime is rising and it is not that there shouldn’t be consequences but the solution is not just one thing, it is a multi-pronged approach.”

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