SSU, a SAFE Campus

March 6, 2023
4 people standing in front of the SAFE Van outside

The SAFE team standing by the new SAFE van: from the City of Cotati Website

Headshot of Veda Dean outside. Veda is wearing a green top and has shoulder length brown hair and bangs.
Veda Dean

“The more [communities] utilize this model or ones similar to it, the more it will benefit every community.” said campus police chief Nader Oweis about the entry of Sonoma State University into the SAFE program of Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and Cotati on January 23, 2023. The creation and expansion of this alternative-to-policing program is a significant milestone on the path to becoming a strong and compassionate community. But what exactly is SAFE and what does it mean for SSU students and faculty? 

Through the determined activism brought by the Black Lives Matter movement, local residents worked with cities to establish a practical police alternative. Based on the CAHOOTS model in Eugene, OR, the SAFE program, or Specialized Assistance for Everyone, was started in July 2021 as the first program of its kind in the region, by the Petaluma People Services Center. The goal of the program is to help vulnerable community members with crisis responses, intervention, and preventative care. The SAFE care team is comprised of civilian first responders and medical professionals. Each team member is highly trained to provide kind and compassionate care to those experiencing many kinds of crises, such as substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health issues. Not long after the program was founded, it expanded its services to the cities of Rohnert Park and Cotati and saw major success. Now that the program has expanded to SSU, they expect to respond to nearly 4,000 calls per year.

SAFE Team outside in Seawolf Plaza
The SAFE team joins SSU in Seawolf Plaza: By
Karen Moranski, Provost and VPAA via Twitter

In a crisis, the SAFE care team can be contacted via 911 call or a non-emergency number that connects to an on-duty SAFE team staff member. If 911 is called, the dispatcher will determine whether the situation calls for either traditional first responders or the SAFE team. “The police department isn't always the appropriate resource” campus police chief Oweis says, “now we have another 24-hour unit that we can use to help stabilize someone, answer questions, help get them through a crisis, which would not necessarily be from a general police resource.” SAFE provides a kind of holistic care that our police cannot replicate.

Chief Oweis also explains that there are many benefits to having the SAFE team expanding to SSU, “The program is a benefit to not just our students but all our faculty because it allows us to assist them and provide them resources where they're at… in Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cotati, as well.” The university already has many resources to help students and faculty such as the health center and CAPS, but when those resources aren't available, the SAFE team will be there at any moment of the day. 

Although Petaluma was one of the first cities to adopt this model, many communities are starting similar programs of their own. For example, the City of Santa Rosa has a similar model called inRESPONSE. These types of programs are also especially popular in communities connected to college campuses, such as CSU Long Beach and UC Santa Cruz. Sonoma State and other universities alike are central actors in their communities, which is why it is so important that SSU is involved in a program like SAFE. Campus police chief Oweis says he believes in the program, “I think that when the data comes out and we see what the data shows, I think it's going to show that it's a great benefit because we can reach out to more people, that we can help people both on and off campus, and throughout the county.” 

For many years, Sonoma County, and the entire country has waited for programs like SAFE to come about to help the lives of people in need. I can recall many times in the past that a situation needed the care of the SAFE team. As a student at SSU, I have a new sense of comfort and security knowing that there’s a 24-hour resource that specializes in outreach to our community members and serving marginalized people. Our campus police do a wonderful job of keeping the campus a safe place, but they aren’t always the right resource to help those in need. With the addition of the SAFE team, more of our neighbors can feel confident that they can get appropriate care and support.