Multiple cities across the country are building programs that involve mental health professionals, social workers, or community members responding to certain 911 emergency calls instead of police officers.
According to USA Today, Eugene, Oregon, Olympia, Washington, and Denver have the only existing non-police responder programs in the United States, however, more strategies and plans are being developed in various locations.
The outlet cited growing movements against police brutality and nationwide calls to defund the police as motivating factors. A June 2020 survey found nearly 8 in 10 voters support routing 911 calls related to mental health and substance use to trained, non-police responders but the programs are not all brand new.
In Eugene, the civilian response program has existed for over three decades. According to USA Today, the White Bird Clinic, a health care center in the city, launched the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program in 1989.
Abbreviated as CAHOOTS, the program sends a team that consists of a medic, usually, a nurse, EMT or paramedic, and a crisis worker. This team takes calls relating to mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.
USA Today reported in 2019, responders requested police backup only 150 times out of an approximate 24,000 CAHOOTS calls.
“The work they’ve been doing is both pioneering and successful,” said Betsy Pearl, associate director for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, according to the news outlet. “The major objection or concern you see is from folks who say this isn’t safe. But from what we’ve seen play out, that isn’t true. In Eugene, there’s never been a serious incident.”
Cities such as Denver and Olympia have used the program in Eugene to build their own in 2020 and 2019 respectively. According to the news report, during the first six months of the Denver pilot, the team responded to 748 of 2,500 emergency calls and found none of the calls required police, and no one was arrested.
“It’s extremely successful, and it’s even better than what we had anticipated,” Denver police chief Paul Pazen said to USA Today. “Right off the bat, we had officers on every shift saying, ‘When can we get more of this and expand this?'”
New York City has also begun its own path to non-police response.
As theGrio reported in November 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new program that will deploy mental health experts when responding to 911 mental health crises instead of police.
The press release stated the Mental Health Teams of Emergency Medical Services would be launched in February 2021 in two high-need communities.
“One in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition. Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes,” said de Blasio, according to the report. “For the first time in our city’s history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need.”
USA Today reported the New York State Legislature is considering a bill called Daniel’s Law in honor of Daniel Prude that would allow mental health professionals to respond to mental health and substance abuse emergencies.
While some are on board, the growing programs have faced critique. In New York City’s pilot program, the NYPD will respond to those calls if there’s a “weapon or imminent risk of harm,” and in those situations, the social workers would not respond to the call, said Susan Herman, director of ThriveNYC, the city initiative overseeing the pilot, according to the news outlet.
Hawa Bah‘s 28-year-old son died in 2012 when police shot him multiple times in his Harlem apartment. She called for an ambulance while visiting from Guinea because she thought her son was depressed and needed medical attention.
“It just increases more police for mental health crises and leads to more deaths in their hands,” Bah said. “They need to remove completely NYPD from mental health crises.”
Other advocates say the programs are not enough. According to USA Today many people impacted by police violence say investment in community-based and long-term mental health care is also necessary.
“You cannot build a mental health response system without also creating and funding better mental health care for the Black and brown community,” Eric Vassell said in a hearing in February on the City Council proposal.
Vassell’s son Saheed was killed in 2018 after 911 calls reported a man with a gun that turned out to be a metal pipe. He said his family struggled to find a program that could help his son, who had been hospitalized and received medication, but never had help in addressing the underlying causes of his trauma.
“If anyone has ever tried to get mental health care for their family through the public system, I think what you find is that the system is often just trying to figure out if your loved one is violent and whether they should send the cops,” added Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center and a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform. “The current system is not actually trying to figure out what caused your loved one to be having a crisis.”
Former President Obama tweeted support of programs seeking alternative response methods to 911 calls.
“More places are experimenting with programs that send civilian responders instead of police to help people experiencing mental health crises,” he said. “It’s a promising development in law enforcement in the wake of this summer’s protests.”
According to USA Today, cities continue to look for alternates to calling law enforcement. Pilot programs have been launched in Austin, Texas; San Francisco; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; and Rochester, New York.
Chicago plans to launch its pilot this summer, and officials in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Oakland, California, Dayton, Ohio, and Charlotte, North Carolina, are exploring similar models.