Middlesex County

Unarmed social workers preparing to respond to 911 calls in Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A team of unarmed social workers could soon start responding to some 911 calls in Cambridge instead of the police.

The director of the city’s new Community Assistance Response and Engagement told Boston 25 News that the team is preparing for a rollout as soon as July.

Cambridge’s CARE Team began training last September and has been doing outreach since December.

They’re now anticipating the tentative plan that will involve dispatchers sending them to non-violent incidents and mental health crises.

The CARE Team will not be accompanied by police unlike some other alternative response programs recently deployed in other cities across the country.

“If anything goes wrong. If there’s any safety concerns. They can radio for assistance immediately and get back up right away,” said Liz Speakman, the team’s director.

Speakman told Boston 25 News that the team has traveled to Durham, NC, on two occasions to study their alternative response program.

“We’ve learned a lot from going on ride-alongs with them and seeing how they interact with community members,” she explained. “I think people understand that having an unarmed civilian with experience in mental health going to mental health calls is really the right response.”

The five members of the CARE Team have extensive backgrounds as social workers and first responders.

“It’s an opportunity for us to help fix a system that’s been broken for a really long time,”  said CARE Team member Marie Mathieu. “I think this program is an opportunity for us to take care of the people we are trained to take care of.”

The CARE Team’s impending launch comes four years after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd that ignited protests across the nation.

“There are simply some calls that require police, and there are some that don’t,” said Cambridge Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, who has a background in social work. “I certainly hope other communities take the step that will follow our lead on this.”

Cambridge Police Commissioner Christine Elow has publicly supported what would be the most ambitious alternative to police response strategy in Massachusetts.

“Our officers have so many responsibilities day to day and to have a partner that can respond to certain calls will be beneficial on so many levels, including helping us better connect with our most vulnerable,” said Elow.

Negotiations with the largest local police union have delayed the rollout.

Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association President Chris Sullivan sent the following statement to Boston 25 News:

The Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association believes the Community Assistance Response and Engagement team has a place in Cambridge as a supplement to the city’s already excellent emergency services. However, the CARE team must first be prepared with proper training and safety protocols, and our negotiations with the City should be settled in good faith.

Every year, Cambridge Police Department officers deliver on-the-scene crisis intervention and emergency counseling to more than 1,000 people in mental health crisis; administer well over 50 life-saving doses of NARCAN to persons in drug-induced cardiac arrest; provide compassionate assistance and first-responder care to hundreds of citizens experiencing medical emergencies; and perform many other duties that demonstrate the care, compassion and dedication with which CPPOA members approach their job every day.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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