Northampton, Massachusetts, has opened a new Division of Community Care that will eventually give the city an alternative to having the police respond to a 911 call.
A new drop-in center is now open weekdays. It offers emotional support as well as help accessing food, housing, clothing and medical care.
Director Kristen Rhodes said people can also contact the division and ask for assistance.
"It could be that we have folks who are in a conflict and need some conflict resolution," she said. "It could be around shared-space concerns. Someone who works in a store is concerned about someone who's outside their store. And they're worried about either their health or just where they're located. We can go out and have conversations around that."
Rhodes said a future step is for 911 dispatchers to be able to send community responders out instead of police officers, depending on the situation, but there's no specific timeline for that.
Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said she supports having the new division, which is part of the city's Department of Health and Human Services.
"Police inherently are a short-term solution," she said. "We get called in an emergency, we go and we leave because there's other call demand. This sort of organization — I'm thrilled to have, because my belief in it is that it offers longer-term solutions where there can be more follow-up and more support for people that policing is just not designed to offer."
Kasper said many of the calls the department gets have a mental health component, which the new community responders have been trained to deal with.
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.