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Documentary sheds light on what an Office of Community Safety could look like in Fayetteville


Fayetteville’s Office of Community Safety (OCS) is still more a concept than an actuality, but community organizing efforts and persistence from Fayetteville City Council members interested in developing an OCS have renewed momentum for building an official alternative public safety office in Fayetteville in recent months.  

The latest community-wide discussion about the OCS took place on Thursday at the Cameo Theater in downtown Fayetteville, where about 50 people turned up to watch a documentary screening of “HEART: Serving Our Neighbors in Crisis,” which explores the Durham Community Safety Department (DCSD)

The documentary shows how, in Durham, social workers and mental health professionals respond to non-violent 911 calls in real time, working alongside EMTs and police officers as part of Durham’s public safety infrastructure. 

Durham’s program, which was among the first in the state, is often referenced in Fayetteville’s OCS discussions. 

Council Members Mario Benavente and Lynne Greene attended, as did Cumberland County Commissioner Veronica Jones and former State Sen. Kirk deViere, who was representing local nonprofit Organizing Against Racism Cumberland County.

The screening was hosted by Fayetteville Freedom for All, a grassroots community organizing group that has been advocating for an OCS in Fayetteville for over a year. The group partnered with several other nonprofits, including Organizing Against Racism Cumberland County, Off-Road Outreach and Cape Fear Indivisible. Rude Awakening coffee house sponsored the screening. 

Lisette Rodriguez, founder of Fayetteville Freedom for All, told CityView that the idea behind showing the documentary was to display a “visual representation” of what a community safety office looks like. She emphasized how the social workers in Durham work alongside other first responders to tackle community safety issues, such as mental health.

“I think this documentary really is important because it shows folks that the Durham HEART team — and hopefully a mental health response team here in Fayetteville — is going to be just like a first responder unit,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez also said she was hoping the documentary would get people engaged in advocating for the city council to fully fund the OCS beyond the initial $250,000 budget for a director, especially as the council nears its annual city budget discussions. 

“We also want to invite Fayetteville residents to join our movement to help pressure the council to fund the OCS adequately,” Rodriguez said. “I know we have money for a director, but the director can't really build out a program if they don't have any money.”

Greene said finding funding was the biggest challenge currently facing the formation of the OCS. She stressed the urgency of getting the previously promised information about Fayetteville’s public safety statistics, which will help determine potential funding options for the OCS, prior to upcoming discussions on the fiscal year 2024-25 budget. 

“There are a lot of things we could be doing, and I just think there's a lot of things we should be doing,” Greene said. “So I’m anxious to see that information from Dr. [Gerard] Tate on what direction we take.”

Benavente agreed that funding was the biggest unresolved hurdle for forming the OCS now, stressing his desire to fund the office with $3.3 million, a “really low ask” in comparison to the $66.3 million budget of the Fayetteville Police Department. 

“The biggest question is the dollar figure,” Benavente said. “Half the argument is, do you like the idea? Yes. That's almost too easy. And so once you see all the data, it's too easy. The real question is, how much are we going to invest to make it a reality?”

Wes Balmer, who attended the screening, said he was feeling confident about the possibility of developing an OCS here in Fayetteville after seeing the success of Durham’s community safety office presented in the documentary. He emphasized the similarities between Fayetteville and Durham, noting the cities’ similar cultural features and their proximity. 

“It really speaks to the possibility of being able to do something similar here,” Balmer told CityView. “I also recognize the huge cultural changes that had to happen with Durham police to open them up to having clinicians ride along, and it's probably going to be a similar cultural resistance here as well. But I think with the help of some of these organizations, we might be able to push through that resistance.”

Addressing the audience after the question and answer session, Stacey Buckner — founder of Off-Road Outreach — expressed confidence in the community’s existing network of social workers, community-focused organizations and peer support specialists who are tackling issues the OCS in Durham addresses officially. 

“We are already doing this in Fayetteville, ” Buckner said. “You just don't realize it because we have all these silos . . . I'm a certified peer support specialist. I'm doing this work every day with the help of people in the community here. And if we could just get us all together, put us in an Office of Community Safety, we could already be doing this.”

To view the “HEART: Serving Our Neighbors in Crisis,” visit the official website.

Contact Evey Weisblat at eweisblat@cityviewnc.com or 216-527-3608. 

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OCS, Office of Community Safety