Calls for the blanket defunding of police are ill-conceived and self-destructive. The proof is in the spike of violent crime in cities that cut their police budgets during the last year.
That said, it doesn’t mean that programs can’t be implemented to shift police priorities and share duties with other specialists, like mental health professionals, when responding to carefully screened 911 calls.
Now, wait before you react. I’m not talking about sending out a lone social worker on a potentially dangerous call or cutting the number of officers on the street. This is about pairing the two forces as a first-responder team. It’s about recognizing that there are 8 million people in this country struggling with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, to say nothing of all the other mental-health maladies, and many police officers are simply not trained to deal with them. Society has unfairly foisted this duty upon cops, and it is way past time to fix that.
Teaming up cops and mental-health clinicians is one idea currently being tested nationwide, specifically in Boston, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and in several cities in Northern California, to name a few.
In Houston, the sheer size of the county is a hindrance to a timely team response, so 150 officers are equipped with iPads that instantly put them in touch with specialists at the Harris County Center for Mental Health. When confronted with someone in mental distress, the officer can get real-time advice on how to handle the situation.
An assessment of the Houston program, which began in 2017, found that remote help from behavioral experts allowed officers to come to an on-scene resolution in 42 percent of mental-health calls. Other subjects were safely sent to an emergency room or psychiatric hospital; only two were taken to jail.
The success of this team approach is encouraging, especially when you consider that about a quarter of all those shot and killed by police each year are mentally ill citizens experiencing a crisis.
So, that’s one idea to modernize policing. Another has been tried and tested in Eugene, Oregon, for decades.
Thirty years ago, officials in Eugene dared to try something different. After realizing how much time officers were spending responding to nonviolent calls involving someone sleeping in a park, dumpster diving behind a luxury condo or acting strangely, they decided to do something different. They created the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Street program, CAHOOTS for short. It has freed up police officers to concentrate on serious crimes.
CAHOOTS consists of a mobile van staffed with a medic (an EMT or registered nurse) and an experienced crisis worker. They don’t wear uniforms, which can heighten fear among the mentally ill, and they are trained to mediate tense situations. They are most often called upon to respond to suicidal subjects, intoxicated or disorderly subjects, or requests for a welfare check on a loved one. Most importantly, the city’s 911 operators are specially trained to determine when a CAHOOTS team can be safely dispatched instead of a squad car. In 2019, CAHOOTS teams responded to more than 18,580 calls that otherwise would have tied up police officers. And they do it for a fraction of the cost of sending in sworn law enforcement.
This is a big deal, and the CAHOOTS idea has spread to places as diverse as Denver, Colorado, and New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Whenever the powers that be can compassionately respond to the mentally ill and, at the same time, reduce the strain on overworked cops, it is a win-win. A 2017 study from the Treatment Advocacy Center showed police officers spent 21 percent of their time responding to or transporting people with mental illness at a cost that year of $918 million. I’m betting the figures are even higher now considering the mental strain the pandemic has had on people.
Look, the idea of simply stripping millions of dollars from police departments, with no concrete plans for how to deal with the shortfall of first responders, is a recipe for disaster. The CAHOOTS model shows us a tested and proven way forward. Every mayor, police chief and community activist should take notice.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.