Four years ago, when an Oakland-based startup called Raheem launched an app that anyone could use to document interactions with the police—the first independent national tool of its kind—it aimed to take on the problem of police brutality. But the nonprofit’s team later realized that it needed to take a completely different approach.
“We’ve documented and analyzed more than 2,500 reports about people’s experiences with police, and they range from physical abuse, patterns of neglect, and psychological and verbal abuse,” says Brandon D. Anderson, Raheem’s founder. “I thought that with the right tool, or at least the right partnerships, we could hold police accountable. I wasn’t really asking myself, though, what would it take to keep cops from killing people in the first place?”
The answer, he concluded, was to find ways to connect people to help in a crisis without having to involve the police at all. “Violence and terror isn’t a flaw of policing, it’s the function of police,” he says. “Police reform has only been extremely successful at one thing, and that’s deterring people living in fear from reimagining safety altogether.”
The nonprofit is now building an app that citizens can use to call for help from places other than 911, while simultaneously connecting a network of police abolitionist groups, community organizations, and mobile crisis teams that will be able use the app as a dispatching tool.
A growing number of organizations are already doing this kind of work. In Sacramento and Oakland, California, for example, a project called MH First connects trained volunteers with people who need support during mental health crises. Calling the police in a situation like this can be deadly, as in the case of Steven Taylor, a 33-year-old Black man diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder who was shot and killed by an officer last year when Taylor was behaving erratically and carrying a baseball bat inside a Walmart store near Oakland. In one analysis of police killings, more than one in five victims had a mental illness.
In Minneapolis, a community organization called Revolutionary Emergency Partners offers a hotline for nonviolent emergencies, from noise and neighbor complaints to mental health crises. Other organizations offer hotlines and crisis intervention for victims of domestic violence. Similar groups exist across the country. A website called Don’t Call the Police offers a list of resources by city.
But it’s challenging for the groups to coordinate responders. “There are a lot of computer-aided dispatching services, but those dispatching services tend to be out of reach for organizations who are serving communities in need, generally, because they’re overpriced . . . or they require a lot of your time and training,” Anderson says (organizations that use Raheem won’t pay any fee). Raheem is now piloting an early version of its app with a few partner organizations, and plans to roll out a beta version with more organizations early next year, which will eventually lead to a mobile app that anyone can use to call for help.
The organization is also working to help communities understand the need for an alternative to policing. “We understand how hard it is for people to move from police reform to the end of policing altogether,” Anderson says. “And I think we really don’t expect people to move simply because we have a compelling resource, either. We know that part of our work is helping people to understand our evolution.”