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New documentary highlights community-centered crisis response program in Durham, NC

The film follows the new response team as they learn, collaborate and grow in the early days of building the program

DURHAM, N.C. The new documentary, “HEART: Serving Our Neighbors in Crisis,” details the development and implementation of the HEART (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team) program, a new public safety response within the Durham Community Safety Department (DCSD) that connects Durham neighbors to the right care — starting from the point at which someone calls 911 to the warm handoff to those who help meet the needs of neighbors in crisis. The project is a collaboration between the City of Durham and nonprofit research institute, RTI International and was funded by Arnold Ventures.

Watch the preview here.

“We’re excited to invite audiences into the challenges and triumphs we’ve experienced building this department and developing a new fourth response option in addition to fire, EMS, and police,” said Ryan Smith, director of the DCSD. “The film provides an insider's view into the early days of HEART. We hope it helps spark conversations in our city and in communities across the county about the kinds of new responses we want available for ourselves and our neighbors when faced with behavioral health crises and other unmet needs."

The 35-minute film follows the new response team as they learn, collaborate and grow in the early days of building the program. It will premiere at The Carolina Theater in Durham, North Carolina, on Wednesday, April 19, at 7p.m. ET with a panel discussion following. Doors open at 6 p.m. The screening is free and open to the public; pre-registration is required via Eventbrite.

“Jurisdictions across the country have been working hard to identify, design, and implement innovative solutions to seemingly intractable public safety and wellbeing problems,” said Marc Krupanski, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “There is growing, bipartisan recognition that approaches which rely primarily on traditional law enforcement have failed to solve the problem, have put an undue strain on police and an already over-burdened public safety system and can cause even more harms. The effort in Durham, North Carolina highlighted in this new documentary, offers a promising and innovative approach to working across government to innovate, coordinate, and address the needs of those who are often most vulnerable, marginalized and at risk of harm.”

After a RTI study revealed that many of Durham’s 9-1-1 calls were for nonviolent incidents, the city decided to pilot a program to further support community needs. As the city's newest public safety department, it is the first to be staffed with mental health clinicians, peer support specialists and EMTs working together to support neighbors in crisis.

Stephanie Hawkins, Ph.D., vice president of the Transformative Research Unit for Equity (TRUE) at RTI, said projects like this documentary are essential to reimagining a future we want to see.

“Shifting narratives are necessary when working to advance equity,” Hawkins said. “This is an important story about a new approach to crisis response that can help transform narratives and mindsets about public safety.”

The documentary began production in the fall of 2022 and was directed and produced by TRUE's Narrative Research and Community Engagement Lab at RTI. 

About the City of Durham Community Safety Department
The Community Safety Department (DCSD) works to enhance public safety through community-centered approaches to prevention and intervention as alternatives to policing and the criminal legal system. In its second year, the department has three primary functions: piloting new response models for 911 calls for service, collaborating with community members to identify additional approaches to public safety, and managing and evaluating existing contracts and external partnerships intended to advance public safety. The response teams operate under the name of "HEART" (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams). For more information about how the Community Safety Department serves the community, visit the DCSD webpage, where you’ll also find data that show how the programs are touching the lives of Durham “neighbors” in crisis every day.

About Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States. Driven by a mission to maximize opportunity and minimize injustice, it invests in sustainable change, building it from the ground up based on research, deep thinking, and a strong foundation of evidence. Arnold Ventures is headquartered in Houston, with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City. For more information about Arnold Ventures, visit www.arnoldventures.org.

About RTI International
RTI International is an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition. Clients rely on us to answer questions that demand an objective and multidisciplinary approach — one that integrates expertise across the social and laboratory sciences, engineering and international development. We believe in the promise of science, and we are inspired every day to deliver on that promise for the good of people, communities and businesses around the world. For more information, visit www.rti.org.