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Police Abolitionists Are Building a Dispatch App To Replace 911

In his State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Joe Biden made his position clear on the massive protests that swept through U.S. cities in 2020. “The answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund the police,” Biden said, to a bipartisan standing ovation and criticism from progressive lawmakers.

But many communities who have long suffered under police violence still disagree. 2021 set a new record for police killings, and some activists have taken matters into their own hands by creating rapid response networks that respond to conflict and mental health crises within their own neighborhoods. 

Now, one organization is building technology that aims to replace 911 emergency calls, including an app that lets anyone request assistance from first responders without summoning the police.

When Brandon Anderson founded the non-profit Raheem in 2017, he thought policing could be reformed into an institution that took care of people, even Black people. The organization created a first-of-its-kind independent police abuse reporting service, as a tool for holding law enforcement accountable. 

But after several years, Anderson started asking deeper questions about the nature of policing, ultimately concluding that violence and terror are not flaws of policing, but functions of it. As author Alex Vitale explains in The End of Policing, police departments formed in the US to prevent enslaved people from rebelling, to aid colonialism, and to suppress workers movements.

“If we want to give our children and partners and neighbors real safety, the system that is killing us is just not the answer,” Anderson told Motherboard. “Police reform has been only extremely successful at one thing: deterring people who are living in fear from reimagining safety altogether.”  

In October 2021, the organization shuttered its reporting service and started developing an emergency dispatch app that will allow people to bypass 911. Under the current system, organizations that want to provide non-police crisis response feel compelled to join the 911 hotline—which is tied to police departments—and people in crisis see 911 as their only option. The app is still in its beta version and not yet ready for public use, but Raheem is designing it to send abolitionist groups, community organizations, and mobile crisis teams to assist people who need support instead of law enforcement at no cost.

The app comes at a time when public agencies, including education and healthcare, have absorbed police functions, while carceral institutions have absorbed social work and mental health care functions, according to professor of geography and renowned abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Abolitionists have challenged the idea of “crime” as an accurate measure of harm and violence, and argue that they could be prevented by adequately funding affordable housing, healthcare and food programs—not policing and prisons.

“I, like many abolitionists, came to abolition because we were tired of harm and we wanted to see something else happening in our communities and in the world,” said Gilmore in an interview with The Intercept. “We didn’t come idealistically thinking that there was no such thing as harm. Rather, we looked at the political category of crime and wanted to take it apart.” 

Raheem’s abolitionist views distinguish the group from other services that claim to make the public safer, including Citizen, an app that has been criticized for creating fear and distrust by deputizing neighbors to serve as extensions of police. 

“We are not creating technology that serves as pocket police,” said Anderson. “Our interest is building a consortium of care that meets the needs of communities during their crises and in conflict.” 

Since the service requires social infrastructure, Raheem is organizing an emergency response network of about 40 groups and individuals into what they call the People and Technology for Community Health (PATCH) Network. Each group may choose to participate in Raheem’s dispatch app; the only strict requirement is that they do not collaborate with the police.

“Normally, a lot of the groups that get funding for mental health response are formalized groups that have a lot of different connections with police, with ICE, and also Child Protective Services, and all of these different institutions that have historically and currently harmed Black people and displaced brown folks and also end up in a lot of fatal interactions,” Cosette Ayele, Raheem’s organizing director, told Motherboard. “So we really wanted to plug in with those groups that are not formal groups, those groups that have been doing this work, but are doing it in a more organic sense.” 

Some of Raheem’s key partners include M.H. First in Oakland, Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team (HEART)Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR), and Revolutionary Emergency Partners in Minneapolis, all of which offer non-police responses to crises

Community-oriented non-police response groups are oftentimes under-funded and under-resourced, since US cities tend to disproportionately fund policing over public health infrastructure and social programs. Often, these groups face the difficult choice between receiving funding and retaining their values and autonomy. Many cities also use non-police response groups like violence prevention organizations in order to foster positive relationships between the community and law enforcement, according to numerous Request for Proposal documents reviewed by Motherboard. 

By building this organizational infrastructure, Raheem hopes to empower individuals seeking help, and aid groups who want to provide support and care without involving police. 

“The infrastructure we’re building allows organizations that are currently being withheld to those funding requirements by the state to build something new outside of that system, such that they aren’t completely tied to that,” said Anderson. “I think, generally, what we’re hoping to build is this slight container and empty space where we could build a world where people don’t have to depend on the state for that care. We can do that. People are doing that.” 

By Ella Fassler

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