Defund police? Some cities have already started by investing in mental health instead
Cities across the country followed Washington D.C.'s lead by painting "Black Lives Matter" and other words of support on city streets. USA TODAY
Leslie Herod couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
It was May 2019, and Herod, a Colorado state representative from northeast Denver, was in Eugene, Oregon, on a ride-along with a crisis intervention team that takes the place of police response.
The team arrived at what Herod describes as a typical suburban house: nice neighborhood, good-looking yard, kids playing outside. But inside the 真人百家家乐官网网站home, a wife was in hysterics: Her husband had locked himself into the bathroom and was threatening to kill himself with a box cutter.
Because he had a weapon, police were already there. But as the team's mental health therapist soothed the man, persuading him to put down his weapon and come out of the bathroom, law enforcement retreated. An EMT, also part of the crisis team, took the man’s vitals, helped him take his medication and even persuaded him to eat a sandwich. Throughout the response, Herod was struck by the empathy and compassion for the man in crisis – and the fact that police stepped aside.
“Watching the police say ‘You’ve got this, you can do your job’ and leave the scene, that was the most impactful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Herod says.
Now, she’s hopeful a similar response becomes commonplace in cities across the U.S.
As calls to 30-year-old program CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, is the model other cities are looking to as they form their own programs.
Co-response teams, which often pair a cop with a social worker, have grown in popularity across the country in recent years, especially in areas crippled by the opioid crisis. But as outrage grows over the number of Black men who have died in interactions with police in recent years – including George Floyd, whose death in Minnesota on May 25 spurred the most recent wave of protests – communities are demanding a system other than traditional policing. Advocates say programs like CAHOOTS offer a better, safer alternative.
various police reforms throughout the city, acknowledging that “a lack of equity in our society overall leads to a lot of the problems that police are being asked to solve.” Similar proposals have popped up in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, and Portland is set to launch its own crisis intervention team in the coming weeks. According to operations coordinator Tim Black, CAHOOTS has also been in conversations with cities in Texas, Kentucky and New York.
“It’s powerful and incredibly moving seeing our message reach the audience we’ve always wanted it to reach,” Black says. “We’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, and it’s always been about putting our head down and getting to work.
“But now there are mentions of CAHOOTS everywhere. For our staff, there’s almost disbelief at the volume of validation.”
Police uniforms and weapons can be triggers
For Herod, the first openly LGBTQ African American to hold elected office in Colorado, the fight for more mental health resources is personal: Herod’s older sister has been “caught up in the prison industrial complex” for most of Herod’s life, battling addiction and other mental health ailments. And as a Black woman in a white world, Herod understood from a very young age that calling the police “could mean my brother or sister ended up dead.”
On June 1, with money from a 2018 ballot initiative championed by Herod that put about $2 million into mental health and substance abuse programs, Denver launched Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR. Slated for a one-year pilot program, the single STAR van has already been flooded with more than 50 calls.
Carleigh Sailon, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor, helps manage STAR and already sees the benefits. On one of her first calls, STAR responded to an elderly man who was frustrated by his broken wheelchair. Sailon worked her various social service contacts around Denver, ultimately connecting the man with the local Veterans Affairs office and getting him a new wheelchair. She’s not sure what would have happened if a police officer had arrived instead.
“There is no law enforcement solution to a broken wheelchair,” Sailon says.
Those skeptical of calls to “defund the police” might worry about the safety of Sailon or other responders if an armed officer isn’t present. But an emergency response team that doesn’t involve police is a plus, Sailon says. “The uniform alone," she says, "can be trigger for people depending on what their past experience has been, especially if they have a history in the criminal justice system.
“Even if the officer is being supportive, they can have an immediate fear that they’re in trouble or going to jail,” she says. Allowing people in crisis to talk with a trained counselor or social worker often puts them at ease, which helps everyone find a safe solution quickly.
In 2016, Denver launched a co-response team, which Sailon jokes was basically a modern version of "The Odd Couple."
"Social workers and police are not who you imagine would be paired up, but they saw value in the work we do," she says. Still, the community wanted more mental health resources, which Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen supported.
“We have to reexamine, reevaluate and reimagine what public safety looks like in the future,” Pazen says. “This movement is a tipping point, it’s a watershed moment. … We have to meet people where they are. Some folks have experienced historical trauma, and the uniform, the badge, it reignites that. We need to look at alternative responses.”
Pazen believes the benefits of a crisis intervention team are twofold. Communities and people are better served, and police are then able to use their skill set and pursue “high-level crimes and traffic safety.”
In Eugene, CAHOOTS is usually sent out if it’s not a criminal or medical emergency; the program takes about 20% of calls that come in. Dispatchers in the 911 call center are in constant contact with CAHOOTS and “accessible in real time,” Black says. That, plus training that teaches CAHOOTS employees to meet “individuals where they’re at” leads to many more positive outcomes than negative.
“Let’s say you’re asleep on the street,” Black says. “Who would you want to wake you up? Someone with a gun, or a social worker you have a relationship with? A police officer is likely to tower over them, but we’re taught to squat down. And we don’t have a badge or a gun or taser, so our interaction, especially for people of color, isn’t informed by generations of oppression.
“Those things matter.”
A dearth of money to treat mental illnesses
Many of the problems in policing related to mental health can be traced back to America’s deinstitutionalization. Starting in the 1950s, states slowly moved thousands of mentally ill people out of asylums and hospitals. They often landed in jails, prisons and sometimes the streets. While Sailon isn’t a proponent of housing people with mental illnesses in large institutions again – the abuse documented in those institutions led to the shuttering of hundreds of facilities across the country – she says the problems came from a gap in resources. Even now, decades after deinstitutionalization, communities are trying to rebuild resources and safety nets.
She wishes the general public had a better understanding of mental health struggles and how those in crisis are treated. Because of stigma associated with mental illness, Sailon says, “those individuals are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators.”
Frequently, Sailon says, people tell her to “be careful” at work. And while they mean well, they don’t understand that she almost always feels safe, because she understands how to handle people in crisis.
“Especially for people who deal with some sort of psychotic disorder, there’s a lot of fear and preconceived notions around those people,” she says. “There’s been a lot of scapegoating of mental health, pointing to it as the cause of various tragedies, and that’s contributed to the stigma.”
Many white people are raised with the understanding that dialing 911 in any emergency will bring immediate relief. But that’s often not the case for people of color, Sailon says, and especially not true for the Black community. She hopes STAR can change that.
“One thing that makes me proud is that we had this in the works before the protests and public pressure,” she says. “I think that’s a feather in our cap – our city values this work.”
$15 million was cut from the Portland Police Bureau, and nearly a third of that will be rerouted to Portland Street Response, the CAHOOTS-like program set to launch soon. (Its start was indefinitely put on hold when the coronavirus pandemic shut down Oregon on March 16; Portland is based in Multnomah County, which began reopening Friday.)
A year ago, the city committed half a million dollars to Portland Street Response, and the pilot program involved one van in a southeast Portland neighborhood. But with more than 10 times the funding now, Hardesty says the pilot program will expand to six vans around the city.
Hardesty envisions Portland Street Response serving mostly the 真人百家家乐官网网站homeless community with an emphasis on compassion and empathy.
“This is not about making people move along or demanding ID or running their names to see if they have any arrest warrants,” Hardesty says. “This is about: ‘How can I help you? What do you need?’ We need to see every person we help not as someone who lives on the street but as a customer – and customers always get treated with respect.”
Hardesty imagines a crisis response team that not only tells people about available social services but physically takes them there. In the winter, she wants the Portland Street Response vans to be stocked with soup, gloves and sleeping bags. As a Black woman, she understands the fear that many in the Black community associate with police.
“As a kid, calling 911 was always a last resort,” she says. “If all else failed, you called 911 – then you prayed. Because policing was never supposed to be about protecting Black people in their own neighborhoods; it was about keeping Black people out of white neighborhoods.”
Hardesty knows that a $15 million cut from the police budget is considerably less than the $50 million Portland protesters had demanded. But she believes this is just the beginning.
“For decades, we’ve been getting a crappy return on millions and millions of investments in police,” she says. “This worldwide revolution is not something I thought I’d see in my lifetime. … This is going to lead to multigenerational transformation in all our cities.”