Atlanta’s alternative to 911 has helped hundreds. Now for the hard road ahead

Preston Marshall outside the Midtown Hotel at a bench where he found a woman struggling and called 311.

Preston Marshall works in an art-deco fantasy called Atlanta’s Hotel Midtown. Lots of gold, giant floral wallpaper and furniture that looks like it’s from the set of “Mad Men.”

Marshall runs loss prevention at the hotel, and in his line of work, keeping the fantasy intact sometimes means keeping people out.

“Well in the past, the only option we had was calling 911 and calling the police,” said Marshall. 

He’s had to do it a lot, but there have been times when it gives him an uneasy feeling. 

“My heart reached out to some of the individuals, especially knowing that some of these people have substance abuse issues or some of them had mental issues,” he said.

But since this summer, Marshall’s had a new option. He’s one of more than 800 Atlantans who’ve called 311 as an alternative to calling the police when they see someone struggling with their mental health, extreme poverty and a range of other non-emergency quality of life concerns.

It’s called the Policing Alternative and Diversion Initiative or PAD, which sends out response teams from their office downtown. 

“So each team is assigned a van. We have it stocked with food, hygiene items, toiletries, all that so that way you know — we pass by these areas all the time — we’re able to help people,” said PAD referral manager Chyna Quarker.

She’s usually the one taking calls as they come in and tries to figure out what local agencies or organizations might be useful for each situation. Meanwhile the two-person teams head out. They’re people who’ve worked in hospitals, in mental health and sometimes peers with lived experience of homelessness or addiction.

PAD helps get people medical care, deal with financial entanglements, find emergency shelter or ideally, long-term, stable housing. Quarker said very often people just need help applying for things like ID cards and other official documents.  

“Right now we’re right at 800 I think for community referrals and … we’re expected to probably do a thousand next year,” she said.

After a pilot run downtown and in East Atlanta, the program went city-wide in July, and Quarker says it’s been a busy six months.

They’ve diverted nearly 300 hundred arrests, according to Quarker, but PAD is a small team working on vast, complex problems built up over many years in some cases.

Policing Alternative and Diversion Initiative executive director Moki Macias. (Lisa Hagen/WABE)

“Our current system, which we have had in place for decades, is that the police are available to respond to basically any concern,” said PAD executive director Moki Macias. “And the expectation is that they will make that person disappear.” 

But she says if that person is arrested for a minor offense, they’re generally released with all the same problems they had to begin with, now with the added trauma of their time in jail. Macias says that’s why a big part of PAD’s work is community education. 

Someone from the organization calls every caller back for a transparent debrief about what the teams were able to help with, or not. Often that can include explaining that PAD does not exist to make people disappear or force anyone to do things without consent. Macias acknowledges that can frustrate some community members who call in expecting a quick fix. 

“What we are promising folks is that when we show up, we’ll have a respectful, kind, creative, proactive engagement with the person, and that we will do our very best to reduce harm for that person and for the community they’re in,” said Macias.

A handful of diversion initiatives like PAD have popped up across the country, including in Albany, New York; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Louisville, Kentucky. Most are modeled on a Seattle, Washington, program that started almost 10 years ago.

Lisa Daugaard is a former public defender who helped start the Let Everyone Advance with Dignity or LEAD program in Seattle, which originally stood for Law Enforcement Assistance Diversion. 

The next thing Atlanta will have to learn, she said, is how to keep up with demand for the long haul. 

“The main comparative advantage that the policing system has always had in the popular imagination is that officers come,” said Daugaard.

Day or night, the deal is, eventually, someone shows up. Both in Atlanta and Seattle, these alternative services aren’t available 24/7. In Atlanta, PAD is only open from 7am to 7pm on weekdays.

Another challenge, Daugaard said, is that as more people learn about the program, it gets harder to show up on each call. She said she’s seen how that can work to undermine the whole idea. 

“Lots of appropriate referrals are made and community members see that there isn’t a response and that tends to reduce people’s belief and enthusiasm for the idea of an alternative that they would have supported, had there been a response,” she said.

Atlanta’s PAD initiative was able to expand citywide because the city council approved a $1.5 million dollar infusion in 2020. In Seattle, the diversion program’s annual budget has grown to $13 million. Atlanta’s police department, meanwhile, runs on $230 million.

People who work with PAD and diversion programs like it make sure to stress that their capabilities are only as strong as the assistance services available in a given community. Likewise, its successes are dependent on how much investment it receives relative to other public safety institutions like the police.

In Seattle, after 10 years in operation, Daugaard says her people are gearing for a request to double their current budget. For now in Atlanta, Moki Macias is just trying to find a sustainable funding stream that can keep PAD running as the city’s political leadership shifts.

This story was made possible with support from The 4am Fund for reporting on mental health and policing