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Reimagining First Responders Amid Calls to Defund Police

CAHOOTS can be an alternative if cities defund police June 25, 2020 11:00 am By

Calls to defund police departments are being made in several states across the nation. There are debates over what the defunding of police would actually look like and concerns about the ramifications of such actions. Those who argue for the removal of funding advocate a redirection of those funds into the community. However, some are still concerns about the need for responses to dangerous situations. Local community leaders, activists, and politicians alike appear to be searching for a new solution to meet the calls for change. One such answer can be found in organizations like CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets).

First of its kind, CAHOOTS operates out of the White Bird Clinic. Founded in 1970 by Bob Dritz in Eugene, Oregon the White Bird Clinic “provides immediate stabilization in case of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, assessment, information, referral, advocacy & (in some cases) transportation to the next step in treatment”. According to clinic coordinator Ben Brubaker, they are the first responders to at least 20 percent of the 911 calls in the Eugene area.

The program costs $2.1 million a year to run in comparison to the Eugene Police Department’s $68 million. CAHOOTS estimates that it has saved the police department $6 million in medical services costs alone.

CAHOOTS is essentially a mobile troubleshooting program. When called, CAHOOTS shows up to the scene in a clearly marked white van and two trained professionals hop out to survey the situation. If need be, one begins de-escalation while the other stays vigilant and ensures the surrounding environment stays stable. There are no weapons involved. The crisis response teams are simply armed with their training, de-escalation skills, and knowledge of community services such as homeless shelters or detox centers.

CAHOOTS gets called for crisis coupling if someone is between therapist and needs immediate help, welfare checks on the homeless population, family death notifications, wound care, public intoxication, and family mediation. Laurel Lisovskis, the clinical manager of CAHOOTS and crisis worker reckoned around 80 percent of CAHOOTS responses have been for mental health and substance abuse cases. An unhoused person who lacks supplies and support have a higher tendency to deal with situational depression and anxiety as part of their experience.

It is paramount to consider mental health when working in this field. Understanding where a person is coming from when people are thinking about stealing or commit nonviolent crimes has a lot to do with mental health,” Lisovskis said. “Trauma affects people’s mental health very specifically, so the acknowledgment of that is wound very tightly though our work.

Over the past year, CAHOOTS has responded to 26,000 calls. According to Lisovskis, out of those 26,000 calls the police have been called for back up around 100 times. The response teams cannot physically restrain a client, so if there is someone who is intoxicated, not open to listening, and putting themselves in harm’s way back up will be called. Suicidal clients who refuse to be taken to the hospital are another instance in which officers would be asked to support the situation.

Officers that we work with know what to expect,” Lisovskis said. “They will just kind of be there and try to let CAHOOTS do their jobs. They will try to let us take control as much as possible since we strive to build rapport and trust with our clients. We stay even when back up is called because we never want a client to feel alienated or abandoned.

In order to be prepared for street calls, crisis workers endure heavy training. There is an in-house training that requires the responders to stay with the White Bird Clinic for 6 months and work with a van professional who shows them the ropes, as well as, an academy that goes for about 8 to 10 weeks. The curriculum includes scene safety, crisis skills, medic skills, radio and reports, and other skills that prepare their trainees for fieldwork.

The White Bird Clinic also offers a de-escalation training to community agencies and other interested parties. According to the White Bird Clinic website, their de-escalation training covers:

  • Basic interpersonal communication skills with a humanistic/person-centered approach.
  • Basic crisis intervention and de-escalation tips and techniques.
  • Physical safety and scene assessment.
  • Basic physical assessment of a person.
  • General self-care and maintaining healthy boundaries in difficult situations.
  • Questions and concerns that are specific to the agency, business, or community.

The curriculum does dive into ethics and cultural competency, however, the White Bird Clinic acknowledges its silence surrounding race and racism in the past and has made a commitment to implement regular conversations about racial bias.

CAHOOTS is trying to help themselves first,” Spencer Smith, Cultural Competency Instructor for White Bird Clinic, said. “They want to get rid of racial prejudice and injustice within their institution preemptively before working outwards. They want to make sure their teams are not racist themselves.

Smith is working with the White Bird Clinic to implement a cultural humility and diversity training that directly address race bias and microaggressions faced by minority groups.

I want to create a safe place where everyone has a chance to talk, but BIPOC are not targeted and expected to speak about their experiences,” Smith said. “I want people to ask questions in the training so when they are with their BIPOC coworkers or peers, they are not going to ask them those questions. It is not up to your black and brown friends to educate you on issues of racial bias and prejudice, so these diversity trainings are a really awesome opportunity to become educated.

CAHOOTS is also working on getting a three-digit number for people to call who do not feel comfortable calling 911. Theoretically, an individual in need could call the number, and CAHOOTS would respond directly eliminating any chance of the police being dispatched as first responders. This would increase their accessibility and build trust with their BIPOC community members.

Exactly like police, CAHOOTS responders are walking into unknown situations. The more cohesive and comprehensive their training is, the better they will be able to serve their community.

We bring with us our de-escalation skills. For anyone, your biggest de-escalation skill is yourself. How grounded are you, how much sleep have you had, are you distracted,” Lisovskis said. “Showing up really grounded and coming with the confidence of having those skills is we bring. We also bring police radios but we are not armed.

To increase the response team’s confidence and skills, they need to know what their community demands of them. White Bird Clinic is forming a stewardship council whose mission is to ask community members to do some overview of CAHOOTS and relay what they need to be considering to best serve the marginalized community. CAHOOTS understands the importance of listening first, action second.

The discussion of scaling up the CAHOOTS operation to handle cities like Seattle is surprisingly feasible. Mobil crisis work is only as good as the host city’s available resources and services. It is a reflection of what the community can offer. Some questions cities need to be asking themselves during this period of time are: Do we have sobering facilities? Do we have a crisis center where people can go to decompress after they experience trauma or are shifting meds?

I think it is really important for cities to be examining how they are serving their community and using the mobile crisis as a link to those services. What kind of waitlists do they have for these facilities if they have them at all?” Lisovskis said.

An example of a fairly well-prepared city is Seattle, Washington. Seattle has a homeless response team in place that works to aid the growing homeless population. Seattle already has many services available for vulnerable populations to access, however, the police department is used to manage some of this population.

Police response to drug-induced scenes and mental health cases have an increased tendency towards violence. For example, Smith’s involvement with CAHOOTS was sparked by an incident that happened in November 2019 in Eugene, where a Latino boy who took acid and had a bad trip which resulted in the police being called. The police ended up tasing the boy. This is a scenario in which CAHOOTS could have been the first responders and de-escalated the situation before violent tactics were employed.

According to a study done by the Treatment Advocacy Center, “individuals with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement.” CAHOOTS would be an easy alternative to the deployment of police on scenes where drugs or mental health are prevalent.

If cities like Seattle were to defund their police force, those newly available funds would be allocated to mobile crisis response programs and community services. Programs like CAHOOTS would save the city millions. The current budget for the Seattle PD is $401 million. CAHOOTS costs $2.1 million a year. Even if the mobile crisis response program was scaled up to meet the size and demand of the city, the necessary funding would be nowhere near the cost of the current budget. This would leave more available funds to create and/or support robust community services that decrease food insecurity, housing insecurity, drug, and alcohol reliance, inevitably leading to a decrease in stealing and other nonviolent crimes in the first place.

CAHOOTS works with and for the community and strives to continue to better themselves and improve their accessibility. The mission and capabilities of CAHOOTS serve as a unique and necessary alternative to police as first responders and could be a potential path for cities seeking to defund their police and funnel those funds back into the community.



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