Restorative Policing: Enhancing Public Safety for All

April 11, 2018

Police Departments throughout the country are created to protect and serve their communities, and to provide public safety to all residents and visitors. We all know that not all calls for service stem from an urgent emergency 9-1-1 call; in fact, many interactions between law enforcement and community members derive from concerns that are more societal and complex in nature. How sworn officers interact with people who are experiencing chronic homelessness, and may have substance use or mental illness challenges, is one example.

Enforcement alone on various municipal code violations will not reduce homelessness, or even solve the underlying problems. A more holistic, coordinated approach between law enforcement, social service agencies, business and community leaders, and housing providers is required. This is where restorative policing comes in.

The City of Santa Barbara Police Department (SBPD) Restorative Model directly engages with individuals experiencing chronic homelessness to provide a link to social services and housing. Team members use a “client-centered,” three-pronged focus, asking:

  • “Why are you here?”
  • “Where would you rather be?”
  • “What do you need to be safe?”

The SBPD Division Team consists of two full-time Restorative Police Officers, one Court Liaison/Case Manager, and one Outreach Specialist/Case Manager. All sworn officers also receive regular training on identifying and interacting with individuals who experience mental illness. There are also plans to add licensed medical personnel who can directly address health related concerns, thus reducing medical calls for services and emergency room visits. The Restorative Team’s tactics are to:

  • Assist the person to get to where services exist;
  • Gain the person’s agreement to access detox or outpatient services;
  • Drive the person directly to a viable program; and/or
  • Refer the person to Restorative Court.

The Restorative Court system consists of weekly hearings at the courthouse, with a team-centered approach to addressing people’s legal issues. Aimed to improve the client’s quality of life, the program is voluntary, and combines plea bargaining with alternative sentencings, such as mental health counseling, residential treatment programs, and housing alternatives. If the person agrees to case management, their cases are dismissed after six months. If the person does not readily accept the available services, the team keeps encouraging them to participate and they are welcomed back whenever they are ready.

In July and August 2017, the Restorative Team assisted 272 people, resulting in 18 people connecting to requested services, 11 people reunifying with family members, and 7 Veterans being identified and served.

While direct interaction between law enforcement and individuals who experience homelessness is a key component of this holistic approach, creating positive connections between law enforcement and businesses, residents, and visitors also increases the public safety presence for all. Hiring non-sworn Community Service Liaisons, Volunteers in Policing (VIPs), and State Street Ambassadors to patrol the area is a cost-effective way to achieve these goals, as sworn officers focus on work only someone with a police badge can conduct. These groups, recognizable by their color-coded uniforms, improve customer relations and give all of us a more direct way solve conflict, or deter negative activity from occurring in the first place. Check out this 5-minute video , which explains this holistic approach in more detail.

Just as there is no one solution that will end homelessness, there is no one approach to handling calls for services. The Santa Barbara Restorative Policing Model, in conjunction with this layered approach towards improving customer service and increasing communications among various stakeholders, helps us enhance public safety for all.

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