- The Washington Times
Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Police departments across the country looking to dial down the potentially deadly stakes of encounters between officers and the public are adding unarmed mental health experts to 911 calls.

Minneapolis; Los Angeles; Denver; Portland, Oregon; and the District of Columbia are among the cities experimenting with “crisis intervention” programs that trace their roots to a long-standing initiative in Eugene, Oregon.

Since 1989, Eugene’s CAHOOTS program, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, has been sending unarmed teams that include a crisis intervention worker and a medic to handle 911 calls for mental health, addiction or homelessness issues. 

The program, which now includes neighboring Springfield, runs on a 24/7 basis for about $2 million a year, or roughly 2% of the two cities’ police department budgets, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. 

In 2019, the crisis assistance teams responded to about 24,000 calls, nearly one-fifth of all 911 dispatches. Only 150 of those calls required police backup.

After last year’s nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a White police officer in Minneapolis, programs like Eugene’s have received a lot of attention from city leaders scrambling to rethink police funding and priorities.

Minneapolis has added two mental health professionals to work with its 911 dispatchers, and Los Angeles is testing a co-responder initiative involving police and mental health experts. Portland has expanded the area covered by the city’s street response program, and Denver plans to establish a 15-member community advisory committee to gather feedback on a similar program.

In the nation’s capital, an initiative launched in June diverts the same types of 911 calls as the Eugene program. 

For those redirected calls, the District’s dispatchers typically send a community response team that includes a licensed mental health clinician, a person with live mental health experience and/or a behavioral health specialist.

Operators have been trained to help identify situations in which the community response teams, or CRT units, should be engaged and when armed police responses are necessary and appropriate, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health told The Washington Times.

Most of the experimental programs, including the District’s, de-emphasize or even eliminate the traditional response of sending an armed officer at first notice.

Still, National Police Association spokeswoman Betsy Brantner Smith stressed the importance of having armed officers readily available in case a situation turns violent.

“Law enforcement must safeguard against complacency by anyone involved. A mental health call can quickly and irrevocably go wrong,” said Ms. Brantner Smith, a retired police sergeant.

The D.C. Council approved $7 million in federal recovery funding in August for “alternative 911 response.” Some of the funding will go toward hiring more 911 dispatchers and increasing CRT staff from 58 members to 94. 

Psychologist Sylvia Marotta-Walters said a mental health expert is trained to assess the state of a person and use that information to de-escalate a crisis. Meanwhile, a police officer is trained to assess the overall situation, “rather than the person alone, and to restore order to the situation.”

“Both goals are worthwhile, but the experienced counselor benefits the individual by helping them to restore whatever coping resources they may have,” said Ms. Marotta-Walters, a professor and chair of the George Washington University Department of Counseling and Human Development.

If police are needed, the Department of Behavioral Health spokeswoman said, a CRT will often respond with an officer who has 40 hours of special intervention training.

The District’s Police Reform Commission said this year that about 25% of Metropolitan Police Department officers have received the training, which covers behavioral health and substance abuse concepts, local resources and laws, and suicide prevention and de-escalation techniques.

The D.C. Office of Unified Communications estimates that police were dispatched to 850,000 incidents through the city’s 911 call center from October 2019 through September 2020. Nearly 184,000 of those incidents did not involve an imminent safety threat or potential for property damage.

“This means that, each day, approximately 504 calls were made where a police officer was dispatched to a non-emergency situation that a social worker, mental health professional, or other resource could have been better equipped to address,” according to the D.C. Council’s fiscal year 2022 budget report.

Since the pilot program began two months ago, CRT units have responded to 100 to 130 calls a week, including calls made directly to the response team’s hotline. 

Ms. Marotta-Walters said that “it’s more advantageous to provide treatment to the individual in crisis than to arrest and jail them.” 

Jails and prisons, she said, have turned into de facto mental health facilities where treatment is limited or nonexistent.

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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