Wednesday, May 22, 2024

I wish to address some of the concerns raised by Cambridge city councillors Paul Toner and E. Denise Simmons in their recent letter to the city manager about the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team.

I am glad to know we all agree that there are some calls that armed police officers are not best equipped to handle. And I agree that there is a lot for us to discuss. I would love to meet to discuss your concerns.

In the meantime, to respond to your concerns, I have broken them up into five points.

Testing the model: On the issue of being untested, I say: Let’s test it!

The point as I understand it is that the city should not outsource public safety work to an untested external organization.

First of all, the city is in the process of creating a Community Safety Department. That department will be “untested” until it gets a chance.

Second, Cambridge Heart is not untested. The community members who have become Heart responders have received more than 500 hours of training, and they are drawn to this work because they were already responding to and supporting themselves, their families and friends through crises, many times involving violence. They are now better trained to do that work. They have more resources and have the support of the entire community to do it.

Cambridge Heart was developed through best practices from national organizations that have decades of experience doing this work. Heart is part of several national networks (Cahoots Van Workers, Patch and the Interrupting Criminalization Coordinated Crisis Response Network) working to adopt best practices.

Cambridge Heart has a mental health working group with doctors, social workers, graduate students, people with lived experience and others with interest in this field. The work they do in this group informs the practices, tools and efforts of Heart responders when responding to calls.

And lastly, Heart is not untested because our team has been taking an increasing number of different types of calls for nearly a year now. In December, I gave a presentation at the Public Safety Committee hearing, where I announced the number of calls Heart had taken up until that point. And the number of requests for support have only continued to grow since the Cambridge police shot and killed Arif Sayed Faisal.

(Un)accountable: We have been advocating for a city department for accountability purposes since the beginning. See our list of asks to the city.

We have also been advocating for transparency since the beginning; that is why we developed a community process that led to the Heart model. All of our work and meetings continue to be open to the public. There have been more community members engaged in the Heart process than the city’s process for developing the city’s task force.

Furthermore, Heart has 501(c)(3) status, and so it is accountable to the community, its lawyers, its board, the IRS and its insurance provider.

Liability concerns: Liability has been a concern from day one. Heart has lawyers and consultants ready to have this conversation with the city as soon as you are ready. First, any contract between the city and Heart would include who is responsible for malpractice. As we stated in June 2021, the community decided to develop Heart with a quasi-nongovernmental organizational structure primarily because it would allow the city to outsource liability concerns to a third party 501(c)(3) – meaning that outsourcing this work would place malpractice outside of the responsibility of the city, unlike when someone sues the police department.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, there is a cap in Massachusetts tort law to limit the amount an individual can sue for. Our insurance would cover the difference. Insurance of this kind is standard for organizations such as Heart: volunteer firefighters have the same kind of insurance. According to the insurance company, Heart would be less expensive to cover because we would not carry weapons. We have learned from the insurance company about the legal requirements.

Thank you for your concern for the individual responders. Malpractice would not fall to the individual responder, as they are responding on behalf of Heart. Heart’s insurance would cover any liability costs. If a Heart responder responds outside of work hours, they are protected under the Good Samaritan law.

Finally, I want to remind you that police response raises similar questions of liability – who covers costs when police officers injure a person or damage property when they respond? The city is liable when police officers cause such injuries. Having a community response to certain types of calls lowers the liability risks to the city and can be articulated in any contract negotiated.

The bid process: We have been in conversation with two consecutive city managers about a city contract with Heart. We know and understand that there needs to be a bid process for contracts over a certain amount. We also know, from our legal consultant and our lawyers, that in a situation of sole source, the bid process can be waived. (The Law Enforcement Action Partnership lawyers pointed this out to the last city manager.) It is still unclear if this is such a situation.

If we are not awarded a contract with the city, then we are not awarded a contract with the city.

The city doesn’t yet know what it wants to award a contract for. As we have learned from the city manager’s most recent letter, the new department will be facilitating a process to develop a mission statement soon. Once the city department has a mission and develops a list of needs, Heart can apply through the process to fulfill those needs.

There is no evidence or example of Heart sowing distrust or speaking poorly about the city. Neither the organization nor its supporters intend to sabotage the efforts of the city. Frankly, it was disappointing to read that you thought so lowly of Heart supporters.

We would work with community members who want Heart’s services and with those who wish to continue to advocate for the kinds of changes we seek.

Will Heart responders call the police? As I have stated before, Heart’s lawyers and consultants would love to have this conversation with the city. We need to work together to iron out the details. If there is a situation that requires police response, the police will be called. We give discretion to individual responders to call the police under any circumstance they deem appropriate. We give community members the tools, like a phone, that they need if they wish to call the police under any circumstances. We will not stop anyone from calling the police.

As we develop our protocols, we are conducting research and learning from other organizations about under which circumstances they call the police.

We have learned from other programs around the country about when they thought they would call the police and when they actually called the police.

Cahoots has called the police for backup only a handful of times – largely for involuntary hospitalizations and when a responder is injured. No responder has ever sustained an injury from the person they were responding to.

I hope this information allows us to be in community together and opens a line of communication where we can continue these conversations.

Stephanie Guirand is a co-founder of the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team