DURHAM, N.C. — A social worker who plans to apply to a new safety department said it's an opportunity to make meaningful change in people's lives.


What You Need To Know

Durham is now setting up its new community safety department

The agency will send unarmed social workers to some calls, especially those dealing with mental health issues

Durham police officers told researchers mental health crises account for the vast majority of their calls

One social worker says the key is to remain engaged with the person after the crisis is over


Devohn Philips works for a number of social service groups in Durham, focusing in particular on the needs of Black mothers who are currently or recently incarcerated. She said she plans to apply to Durham's new community safety department as soon as she sees an opening.

“The majority of these calls are for people that have mental health issues, and if a mental health professional shows up and de-escalates and assists people with getting the help they need, it will alleviate a lot of police having to interact with mental health people,” she said. 

The Durham Community Safety Department grew out of last year's protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In early 2021, RTI International published the results of a focus group study it conducted with police officers at city officials' request. Officers told researchers mental health calls account for the majority of emergency calls, with some estimating the share to be as high as 90%.

This week, Ryan Smith became the department's first employee, coming on as director. The department will include a team of clinical social workers and emergency responders who would be sent to mental health and quality of life calls instead of armed police officers. The council paid for the department by eliminating five unfilled positions from the police department and freezing 15 others, though the overall police department budget remained virtually identical to last year.

Philips said she hopes to be one of those workers. Her days typically involve meeting with women who are currently or have recently been in the criminal justice system and helping them connect with services they need. She might also help with planning or carrying out special events. In June, she helped plan a meditation and art therapy session at Lake Holt to help teach healthy coping techniques. She said she expects her work with the community safety department would involve the same or similar tasks.

“It builds community. It lets them know that they are not in this world by themselves,” she said. “A lot of people with mental illnesses are being arrested and incarcerated. What we're asking is provide them with the services they need.”

Asked whether she's worried about responding to situations that might turn violent, she replied she's not worried because much of her social worker training includes de-escalation techniques. Moreover, Philips said the arrival of an armed police officer at a mental health call runs the risk of escalating the situation.

Durham officials said they are currently looking for an assistant director and an administrative assistant for the department. Further job openings most likely will be posted this fall.