Leslie Herod couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
The team arrived at what Herod describes as a typical suburban house: nice neighborhood, good-looking yard, kids playing outside. But inside the 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 present. But as the team’s mental health therapist soothed the man, convincing 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 recalls.
Now, she’s hopeful a similar response becomes commonplace in cities across the U.S.
As calls to “defund the police” echo around the country at Black Lives Matter protests, a handful of communities already know what that looks like, as they invest millions of dollars into mental health resources and response teams instead of just traditional policing. These crisis intervention teams typically do not include an armed, uniformed officer but do feature counselors, social workers and paramedics. And Eugene’s 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 cops in recent years — including George Floyd, whose death in Minnesota on May 25 spurred the most recent protests — communities are demanding a system other than traditional policing. Advocates say programs like CAHOOTS offer a better, safer alternative.
On June 12, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced plans for a crisis intervention program similar to CAHOOTS as part of 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, is helping manage STAR and already sees the benefits. On one of her first calls, STAR responded to an elderly, wheelchair-bound man frustrated by his broken wheelchair. Sailon immediately 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 cops 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 explains. 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 re-examine, re-evaluate and re-imagine 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 two-fold. Communities and individuals 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 around 20% of calls that come in. Dispatchers in the 9-1-1 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 current 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 9-1-1 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’s hopeful that 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.”
So does Jo Ann Hardesty. The Portland City commissioner, 62, just this week scored what she considers a major victory: $15 million was cut from the Portland Police Bureau, and nearly a third of that will be re-routed to Portland Street Response, the CAHOOTS-like program set to launch soon. (Its start was indefinitely put on hold when coronavirus shut down Oregon on March 16; Portland is based in Multnomah County, which began reopening on 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 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 9-1-1 was always a last resort,” she says. “If all else failed, you called 9-1-1 — 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.”