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Photo: CNN
Eugene, Oregon, a town of 170,000, replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers. It’s worked for more than 30 years.

Often when society wants to find a better way of doing something, it’s possible to find a model with a track record showing what works and what doesn’t. Consider this non-police response to crises.

Scottie Andrew writes at CNN, “Around 30 years ago, a town in Oregon retrofitted an old van, staffed it with young medics and mental health counselors and sent them out to respond to the kinds of 911 calls that wouldn’t necessarily require police intervention.

“In the town of 172,000, they were the first responders for mental health crises, homelessness, substance abuse, threats of suicide — the problems for which there are no easy fixes. The problems that, in the hands of police, have often turned violent. Today, the program, called CAHOOTS, has three vans, more than double the number of staffers and the attention of a country in crisis.

CAHOOTS is already doing what police reform advocates say is necessary to fundamentally change the US criminal justice system — pass off some responsibilities to unarmed civilians.

“Cities much larger and more diverse than Eugene have asked CAHOOTS staff to help them build their own version of the program. CAHOOTS wouldn’t work everywhere, at least not in the form it exists in in Eugene. But it’s a template for what it’s like to live in a city with limited police.

“CAHOOTS comes from White Bird Clinic, a social services center that’s operated in Eugene since the late 1960s. It was the brainchild of some counterculture activists who’d felt the hole where a community health center should be. And in 1989, after 20 years of earning the community’s trust, CAHOOTS was created.

“It stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets and cheekily refers to the relationship between the community health center that started it and the Eugene Police Department. …

“Said David Zeiss, the program’s co-founder, ‘We knew that we were good at it, [and] we knew it was something of value to a lot of people … we needed to be known and used by other agencies that commonly encounter crisis situation.’

“It works this way: 911 dispatchers filter calls they receive — if they’re violent or criminal, they’re sent to police. If they’re within CAHOOTS’ purview, the van-bound staff will take the call. … It always paired one medic, usually a nurse or EMT, with a crisis responder trained in behavioral health. That holistic approach is core to its model. …

“White Bird’s counterculture roots ran deep — the clinic used to fundraise at Grateful Dead concerts in the West, where volunteer medics would treat Deadheads — so the pairing between police and the clinic wasn’t an immediately fruitful one. There was ‘mutual mistrust’ between them, said Zeiss. … ‘It was an obstacle we had to overcome.’

“And for the most part, both groups have: Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner called theirs a ‘symbiotic relationship’ that better serves some residents of Eugene:  ‘When they show up, they have better success than police officers do.’ …

“Police encounters with the homeless often end in citations or arrests. Of homeless people with mental health conditions, anywhere from 62.0% to 90% of them will be arrested, per one journal review of homelessness studies. They may end up in jail, not in treatment or housing, and thus begins the cycle of incarceration that doesn’t benefit either party. …

“Most of CAHOOTS’ clients are homeless, and just under a third of them have severe mental illnesses. It’s a weight off the shoulders of police, Skinner said.

” ‘I believe it’s time for law enforcement to quit being a catch-base for everything our community and society needs,’ Skinner said. ‘We need to get law enforcement professionals back to doing the core mission of protecting communities and enforcing the law, and then match resources with other services like behavioral health.’ …

“June Fothergill, a pastor at a Springfield church, [calls] CAHOOTS to pick up the homeless people or people with substance use issues that stop by for free meals.

“Fothergill said while CAHOOTS does its part well — providing immediate services to someone in crisis — there’s still a void when it comes to long-term solutions.

” ‘You can call someone for the crisis, but what are they supposed to do for it?’ …

“They’re better equipped than police to care for the people she serves, she said. But if there isn’t space in affordable housing, Eugene’s detoxing center or mental health facilities, those clients will turn into regulars.’They’re doing what they can do,’ she said. ‘There’s wonderful work going on, but it isn’t adequate at the moment.’ …

“Advocates for limiting the role of police have pointed to Eugene as an example of social service providers and law enforcement working in harmony. But a growing group of dissenters feel there’s little room for police in the movement to fundamentally change the American criminal justice system. Services like CAHOOTS, they say, may function better and more broadly without the assistance of police. Zeiss isn’t sure he agrees.

” ‘Partnership with police has always been essential to our model,’ he said. ‘A CAHOOTS-like program without a close relationship with police would be very different from anything we’ve done. I don’t have a coherent vision of a society that has no police force.’ ”

More at CNN, here.

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