This app developer learned coding in prison and created an alternative to calling the police

December 17, 2020 by G.W. Schulz

At any given time in Oklahoma, there are about 3,000 men and women on parole.

Under the strict terms of prison release, all parolee contact with law enforcement must be reported to their parole officer.

Even mundane, everyday contact that may not have been the parolee’s fault must be reported. This includes any police contact, including traffic fender-benders, witnessing a crime committed by someone else, even police assistance with a medical emergency.

The impact of this required reporting can lead to parolees being placed under increased scrutiny or even sent back to prison.

So when the opportunity arrived for Tomas Correa to help create an alternative to calling the police for community issues, he didn’t hesitate to sign up. Correa served five years in a New York State prison for weapons possession before being released on parole in 2014.

Through his experience in state custody, Correa was introduced to a computer coding boot camp for offenders called Justice Through Code sponsored by Columbia University. From there, he joined the nonprofit software company Emergent Works, which partners experienced engineers with trained offenders like Correa to work on real digital products.

Correa and his team developed an app called Not911. The app, currently limited to New York, routes people to non-law enforcement community organizations that can provide an array of services without law enforcement involvement.

“Being able to circumvent the police and still get your needs met is a beautiful thing. The first thing that comes to mind is a person on parole,” Correa said in a September post about the app. “If [parolees] were to fall off a bike and need assistance and call an ambulance, the police would come, and they could have their parole violated for police contact.”

The app covers services ranging from mental health incidents, victims of violence, homelessness and drug overdoses, immigration issues, and legal services.

Correa and his team were inspired in part by this year’s Black Lives Matter protests which have spurred calls for similar police alternatives. Even many law enforcers argue that communities in the United States have become overly reliant on police to answer public safety calls that don’t always require a trained law enforcement response.

Officials in Denver recently created Support Team Assisted Response units that include medical professionals instead of police for responding to certain types of calls. Dallas has responded to thousands of mental-health calls since 2018 with help from a local hospital.

Here in Oklahoma, the Norman City Council made headlines when it decided to reprogram over $800,000 from its police department budget this year to use trained, unarmed city employees to answer mental illness, drug abuse, and homelessness calls.

Police in Oklahoma City began partnering with state health officials this year to make non-law enforcement experts digitally available through tablets in mental health cases.

Claremore police began using a similar tablet approach in 2016 with iPads that were donated by a local mental health hospital. Astonishingly, as police there gradually began using the iPads, Claremore was able to push down the number of people committed against their will to the mental-health hospitals from a high of 1,115 five years ago to just one in 2019.

Tulsa in the process of adding health-crisis experts to its emergency dispatch teams.

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