GOSHEN — Given how frequently police officers encounter people struggling with mental health issues, what might it mean for a department’s efficiency if a majority of those situations were handled by mental health workers instead of police?
Goshen City Council members will explore that question Tuesday through a special presentation by Ben Adam Climer, an EMT and crisis counselor with the Eugene, Oregon-based nonprofit White Bird Clinic.
Speaking remotely via ZOOM video conferencing, Climer is set to present the council with an overview of the clinic’s CAHOOTS community policing initiative, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets.
“A local resident with a connection to the CAHOOTS program contacted Goshen City Council members with some very basic information. After a couple of local conversations — including with police department leadership — it became clear that there was interest in learning more about this particular model,” council member Julia King said of the upcoming presentation. “Police officers frequently interact with people who struggle with mental health. So, what might it look like if mental health workers responded to some situations instead of police officers? This is simply an opportunity to consider some variations on public safety models.”
Launched as a community policing initiative in 1989, the CAHOOTS model has been in the spotlight recently in the wake of ongoing public safety reform conversations sparked by such incidents as the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police.
According to the clinic website, the CAHOOTS program mobilizes two-person teams consisting of a medic — a nurse, paramedic, or EMT — and a crisis worker who has substantial training and experience in the mental health field.
“The CAHOOTS teams deal with a wide range of mental health related crises, including conflict resolution, welfare checks, substance abuse, suicide threats, and more, relying on trauma-informed de-escalation and harm reduction techniques,” the site states. “CAHOOTS staff are not law enforcement officers and do not carry weapons; their training and experience are the tools they use to ensure a non-violent resolution of crisis situations. They also handle non-emergent medical issues, avoiding costly ambulance transport and emergency room treatment.”
As designed, CAHOOTS calls for service go to the Eugene 911 system or the police non-emergency number. Dispatchers are trained to recognize non-violent situations with a behavioral health component, and then route those calls to CAHOOTS.
“A team will respond, assess the situation and provide immediate stabilization in case of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, assessment, information, referral, advocacy and, when warranted, transportation to the next step in treatment,” the site states, noting that the most common types of calls diverted to CAHOOTS from the police are welfare checks at 32.5% of calls, public assistance at 66.3% of calls, and transportation to services at 34.8% of calls. “By diverting crisis calls that can be more appropriately handled by a CAHOOTS team, the CAHOOTS program takes a substantial load off of the Eugene Police Department and saves taxpayers an average of $8.5 million every year.”
According to a November 2016 study published by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, it’s estimated that 20% to 50% of all fatal encounters with law enforcement involve an individual with a mental health illness.
“The CAHOOTS model demonstrates that these fatal encounters are not inevitable,” the site states. “Last year, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police backup was requested only 250 times.
“CAHOOTS’ efforts focus on a set of problem areas that otherwise would take up a lot of police time and attention,” the site adds. “Police training also doesn’t provide adequate preparation for dealing with mental health, homelessness and other front-line social interventions. The CAHOOTS model provides a comprehensive solution that allows the police department to focus on law enforcement issues while ensuring that appropriately trained responders are dispatched for each unique situation.”
HITS CLOSE TO HOME
According to council member Gilberto Perez Jr., reading through the CAHOOTS program got him thinking about some of the recent conversations he and his fellow council members have had with members of the Goshen Police Department.
“A few weeks ago, all of us city councilors had meetings with the police department to review their police policies. And from that, councilors in my meeting heard from police officers, ‘We get pulled into all kinds of mental health calls. We get pulled into everybody’s situation in the community, and we don’t have time sometimes to fight crime, and go after the bad guys,’” Perez Jr. said of the conversations. “So, when we received this information about the CAHOOTS program, it brought us back to those conversations, and got us thinking about if there is a model out there that could potentially help our police department not be diverted to so many places, where we could reallocate resources to our community where you’re not taking money away from the police department, but you reallocate the resources from other parts of our community to help address those mental health, homeless, poverty, conflict between neighbors, etc., that police officers get pulled into.
“So, I think as a council, we’re just trying to understand what are the best interventions we could work with in the community that don’t always require police intervention,” he added. “Are there some spiritual interventions, some social interventions, some psychological interventions, etc., versus it’s always the police that respond? We love them. They’re doing great work. They need to be doing what they’re doing. But, do they always need to be doing the things that they’re getting called to that could be done by social workers, case managers, care facilitators, people that have more training for those particular situations?”
According to Perez Jr., while he’s interested in hearing more about the CAHOOTS program and its work, he acknowledged that Tuesday’s presentation will be for informational purposes only, with no anticipation of any action on the plan by the council.
“Speaking for myself, I’m not in a position right now to say ‘Yep, I want that program,’ or ‘Nope, I don’t think so.’ This is not a yes or no thing. This is about us learning about what’s being done in some other place,” Perez Jr. said of the presentation. “So, it’s strictly informational. I do want to learn about the program, though, and I imagine we’ll get other programs that will be presented to the council as we’re moving forward. Personally, I see this as a great opportunity to learn what other cities are doing across the country on issues of policing and mental health, and it’s a great tool for us to review, and I just appreciate the opportunity to hear more about it.”
The Goshen City Council meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers of the Goshen Police & Courts Building, 111 E. Jefferson St.
Due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, the meeting will also be streamed live via Zoom. To access the meeting’s live stream, visit https://goshenindiana.org/calendar and click on the meeting link.