One of the things I hear about from constituents the most in my role as a city councilor is a desire for an unarmed civilian response program for non-violent emergencies. Often called alternative emergency response -- a type of unarmed civilian response -- these programs have clinicians (social workers) or community members respond in lieu of or in conjunction with sworn, uniformed police officers. The basic idea is that if a community member is having a substance or mental health crisis, a law enforcement with a badge and a gun might not be the best resource to send out to help.

Public Safety For All Community Workshop April 3 2024

It's a common sense approach that has proven effective and popular in other cities like Eugene and Denver, whose unarmed civilian response programs have drawn a lot of positive national attention. It's also happening in our area, with Cambridge and Lynn being two local communities rolling out these programs. Locally in Somerville, the City Council has named unarmed civilian response as one of our top shared budget priorities all three years that we've done this process -- including again this year.

So the City Council wants this. A large swath of the community wants this. The Somerville Police Department patrol officers I've spoken with about this all have been supportive, at least of a co-response model. The Mayor did include three new Community Health Worker positions in her FY24 budget, and these positions were painted as a possible seed that could grow into an unarmed civilian response program down the road. So why has progress on unarmed civilian response been so frustratingly slow here in Somerville?

The initiative been sitting with our City's Department of Racial and Social Justice for a while now. When pressed on this issue, former RSJ Director Denise Molina Capers frequently would insist that Somerville was unique and therefore it would take time to determine which of the numerous forms that unarmed civilian response is best for our city.

So former Councilor-At-Large Charlotte Kelly and I put together a panel discussion in committee with folks who have implemented and run unarmed emergency response programs around the state and nation. There was an in-depth presentation on the different forms that unarmed civilian response can take and the different response models. Councilors were able to follow up with questions on the presentation and ask the people running these programs elsewhere about those results. If you haven't watched the video of that February 27, 2023 Public Health and Public Safety Committee meeting, I strongly encourage you to do so.

Back to the present, there's actually cause for optimism that we finally might be about to see some real movement on the unarmed civilian response front. Last summer there was a two-part discussion with RSJ with Stephanie Guirand of Cambridge H.E.A.R.T. about unarmed civilian response models uploaded to the City's YouTube channel (Part 1 | Part 2). And when RSJ presented the preliminary findings of the Public Safety for All survey at the November 21, 2023, regular meeting of the City Council, that showed significant community support for these sorts of alternative programs. 

Most encouragingly, there is a community workshop being held by the Public Safety for All Task Force on Thursday, April 3, in the cafeteria of Somerville High School. Beginning at 7 PM, the event will feature an update on the task force's work, provide a primer on unarmed civilian response, and then ask participants a series of questions with the responses helping inform the their recommendations to the Mayor in this area.

I'll certainly be there, as will interpreters for anyone needing interpretation services. There will be refreshments and children's activities on hand as well. I hope to see you!


Jake Wilson


Somerville City Councilor-At-Large (he/him/él)