Tanzina Vega: In many cities across the country, if you call 911 when someone is having a mental health crisis, it's the police who are most likely to show up. As we've seen in well-publicized cases, again and again, that can sometimes have disastrous results. Consider the case of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, who was asphyxiated by police and killed last March. His brother had called for help and Daniel was having a frightening mental health episode. In the city of Eugene, Oregon, such a call would likely have been responded to by a group known as Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets or CAHOOTS.
The program sends unarmed medics and crisis intervention workers to respond to a significant percentage of 911 calls instead of the police. Today, as our nation grapples with the urgency of police reform, Eugene, Oregon is getting renewed attention for the unique system, with some saying it represents the way of policing going forward. Joining me now is Rowan Moore Gerety, a journalist based in Phoenix who wrote about this in The Atlantic. Rowan, thanks for being with us.
Rowan Moore Gerety: Great to be here.
Tanzina: How does the program work and is it affiliated at all with the police department or is it completely independent?
Rowan Moore Gerety: It is affiliated in the sense that it's a vendor that supplies services to the police department, but it is organized and operated by a community health clinic called White Bird that's been in Eugene for more than 50 years. I think an important part of the CAHOOTS equation is that even though they are dispatched through the police department and have pretty close working relationships with the police department, because this service has been around since 1989, they are viewed by the whole city and in particular by most of the people they interact with as very much not police.
I think that's a huge part of what makes them good at their job and what makes them a credible source of help in situations where people probably might not be thrilled to have the cops show up.
Tanzina: If someone calls 911, what is it that the dispatcher is looking for in order to know whether or not to dispatch someone from this program known as CAHOOTS?
Rowan Moore Gerety: The biggest thing they're looking to make sure they don't hear is any reason to think that there's a weapon or another physical safety risk that could be imminent. That's the brightest line governing whether CAHOOTS responds or not is, is this a dangerous situation that the police will need to verify or de-escalate before they can have someone else respond.
What they're looking for broadly, CAHOOTS responses fall into three main buckets, anything having to do with drug addiction, or drug abuse, mental health issues, or homelessness. About two-thirds of their calls are first-party callers. Somebody's calling on behalf of either themselves or somebody they're with and about 60% of their calls have something to do with unhoused population in Eugene. That'll give you an idea, but they also do death notifications. They also do some kinds of domestic disputes.
I think at this point, it's really a matter of trust. They've shown police dispatchers over 30 years that they're capable of helping people calm down in a variety of really high stakes, high-pressure situations, and that in fact, they're a very desirable alternative to the police response in those situations. I think police are quite eager to have CAHOOTS respond to a wide variety of calls.
Tanzina: Rowan, you've gone on calls with the folks from CAHOOTS, what is it like to be on a call with them?
Rowan Moore Gerety: It is mind-blowing, frankly. Just as someone who grew up in this country and in most cities, you've got this binary choice if you call 911, or the dispatcher does, which is would you like police or fire and having this third option is really striking to see in person. They're very calm. They're very focused on the person at the center of the call. If I call the police because I'm worried somebody on my neighbor's lawn acting strangely, and the police come, the police are going to respond with a measure of concern for the person in my neighbor's lawn but also with a measure of concern for are there laws being broken here? Why did that gentleman call me? Is his home at risk? Is his property at risk?
With CAHOOTS it would really be, what is this person on the lawn need right now so that we can get them to a better situation. When you see them working, you realize that in a lot of situations where the police are called probably similar thing goes on, which is that it's hectic, right? An important part of what that second CAHOOTS person might do, while the first person whether it's the medic or the intervention worker is engaging the person at the center of the call, is figure out, hey, is there a dog I need to calm down so that they can have a productive conversation here. Is there somebody else who is trying to get in the middle of this who I need to deflect and redirect away from it?
I ended up on one call on the story driving someone's car, three blocks for CAHOOTS because I drove stick shift and they did not. That was a gentleman who needed to move his car in order to not violate a restraining order with his ex-girlfriend who lived where his car was parked. A lot of what they do just falls into this hectic human problem-solving thing. I think that's something we all probably underrate as a share of 911 calls. Emergency sends a narrower signal than probably the universe of 911 calls that come in in most cities.
Tanzina: Rowan we've got less than a minute to go, but I'm curious about how broad-- are there other police departments that are looking at potentially adapting something similar given the moment that we're in right now? We've got about 45 seconds.
Rowan Moore Gerety: There's a huge amount of interest when I was there in August, they had consulting or information requests for more than 300 cities. I think what makes CAHOOTS appealing to a lot of cities, even places that have some other specialized Response Unit within the police department is the scale. CAHOOTS responds to somewhere like 17% of police dispatch calls in Eugene and no one else comes close to even 1% in most American cities.
Tanzina: Going to have to leave it there. Rowan Moore Gerety is a journalist based in Phoenix and he wrote about this program for The Atlantic. Rowan thanks so much for joining us.
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