Durham residents want to expand NC’s first unarmed 911 response. Can the city afford it?

Claire Shelnutt lost her little sister in 2021 after years of mental health struggles, but she said a program being piloted in Durham might have helped save her life.

“I know what it’s like to call 911 on behalf of someone you love when they’re in the midst of one of the worst days of their life,” Shelnutt told the Durham City Council on Monday night.

“It’s awful — awful,” she said.

More than a dozen people asked the council to expand the city’s HEART program, which sends unarmed specialists instead of police to some 911 calls.

  • HEART aims to limit potentially dangerous interactions with police and connect residents with mental health resources and follow-up care.

  • It’s the first program of its kind in North Carolina.

  • It has attracted national praise since launching last summer and is popular among City Council members.

But the teams’ hours are limited and they only work in 12 police beats, about a third of the city.

Have a HEART Durham organized dozens to rally for 24/7 citywide access Monday evening before heading to the City Council’s first budget hearing. Council member Monique Holsey-Hyman, a social work professor, spoke at the rally.

“Eleven months before she died, I called 911 on behalf of my sister,” Shelnutt said. “She was wrestled to the ground by law enforcement officers. When she needed access to support and resources, she was met with violent force... These calls were made in the dead of night. Crises like these cannot be scheduled.”

Expanding HEART has support from local business owners.

“We have seen firsthand what it’s like to call police on homeless folks and what happens afterward,” said Elliot Berger, who co-owns The Regulator Bookshop and was speaking on behalf of Ninth Street merchants.

Areli Barrera de Grodski, who co-owns Cocoa Cinnamon, said none of their locations are in HEART’s service area.

“Recently we have been dealing with a neighbor who is in need of health care, mental health care,” she said. “Our team is starting to feel unsafe. We have been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to create community safety measures, but I feel like we are exhausting all of our resources.”

How much would it cost?

It’s unclear how much expanding HEART would cost.

The city’s budget totaled $570.4 million last year, with more than 23% going toward public safety.

The Community Safety Department’s budget last year was nearly $4.8 million.

  • Council member Jillian Johnson requested more money for HEART be included in the budget, with no cost estimate.

  • Holsey-Hyman put in a $1.4 million request to add eight full-time positions for two years of improved follow-up care and case management.

What’s next: City Manager Wanda Page will present her recommended budget to the City Council on May 15.

  • Another public hearing is scheduled for June 5.

  • The budget will be adopted June 20 ahead of the start of the fiscal year on July 1.