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Eugene, Oregon, Police Chief: Sending Unarmed Crisis Specialists On Mental Health Calls Saves Lives

One in four people killed in police custody have a serious mental illness. In Eugene, Ore., mental health advocates and local police are working together to change that statistic. (Courtesy CAHOOTS)
One in four people killed in police custody have a serious mental illness. In Eugene, Ore., mental health advocates and local police are working together to change that statistic. (Courtesy CAHOOTS)

Police departments across the country are re-routing funds to unarmed crisis teams that respond to situations like suicide threats, substance abuse calls and welfare checks.

In many cases, counselors and EMTs can de-escalate a situation while the mere presence of a police officer might do the opposite.

People with mental illness in particular are disproportionately killed by police. Take Miles Hall in Walnut Creek, California. After his family called the police because he was having mental health problems, Hall ran at officers with what turned out to be a gardening tool and was shot dead. Police are also to a lesser extent killed by the mentally ill.

Lynn, Massachusetts, officials recently set aside $500,000 to create an unarmed response team. Denver, Colorado, has the new STAR program, short for “support team assisted response.” Biddeford, Maine, is asking the city council to fund two mental health professionals to work with the police department. And there are more efforts happening across the country.

The country’s first program of this kind is called CAHOOTS, which stands for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets.” For the past 31 years, the program has connected the Eugene, Oregon, Police Department with EMTs and mental health crisis responders from the White Bird Clinic.

The police department previously faced claims of using excessive force in response to mental health calls. Now, call dispatchers ask key questions to determine whether CAHOOTS should handle a situation, Police Chief Chris Skinner says.

And the community knows CAHOOTS is there to help.

“Oftentimes, people already have identified that CAHOOTS is the right answer for what they’re seeing,” he says. “And they will just simply say, ‘Hey, I need a CAHOOTS worker,’ or ‘I need a CAHOOTS van to come out here.’ ”

Calls that go to CAHOOTS include behavioral health issues, mental health crises and substance-induced psychosis, he says. CAHOOTS workers can provide people with medical treatment and give them a ride to resources.

It’s not the presence of a gun alone that can escalate these situations, Skinner says, but rather the authority that police officers carry.

“When you think about somebody that’s in crisis, the thought of an authority figure that has the ability to take away your civil liberties and take you into custody and arrest you can be really alarming,” he says. “It’s really hard to de-escalate the situation if somebody’s immediate response to seeing a uniform is believing that they’re going to jail.”

Crisis responder Daniel Felts started on the team with a basic EMT license and then completed mental health training. New hires answer around 700 calls before being considered provisionally trained, he says, and then start going out in the field with an experienced responder.

To disarm a situation before it escalates, Felts says he introduces himself and asks the person in crisis questions: “How are you doing? What’s going on? Can we check-in?” He also makes it clear that he’s unarmed and there to help rather than exercise authority over the person.

“I’ve never been assaulted by a client,” Felts says. “And some of that’s luck. And some of that is the training and the connection to the community that the CAHOOTS team provides.”

The police department often receives more calls than it can respond to, Chief Skinner says. The department defers about 8% of calls to CAHOOTS, he says, which frees officers up to better do their jobs.

And that’s not the only way CAHOOTS helps the police in Eugene: A 2016 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated 25% to more than 50% of fatal encounters with law enforcement involve someone with a mental illness. Skinner believes everyone in the community is safer with an unarmed, ununiformed team in the city.

The department recently honored the 10-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of a police officer by a person with mental illness, he says.

“So that’s front of mind for us, how mental illness plays a role in fatalities both ways,” he says. “And I would say that we think that the model that we have here works.”

In some escalated situations that involve suicidal people with a weapon, for example, the police department will send officers to support the CAHOOTS team, he says. Of 24,000 calls to CAHOOTS last year, police backup was only needed 150 times.

Responder Felts wants to help people by normalizing the “very human experience of reaching a breaking point” and connecting with resources that can make them feel better, he says.

“When somebody Googles how to kill themselves, you know, suicide by cop pops up. And I love being able to tell people when I show up that they don’t get to kill themselves because I’m not a cop,” he says. “Today, it’s not going to happen.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.