Model of crisis workers dispatched to 911 calls proposed in Chicago

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Half of the people killed by police have a disability, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Illinois.

One program out of a city in Oregon is trying to change that, by putting trained mental health workers on the streets. They respond in a crisis much like an officer would. They are trained professionals, but not armed.

The program is called CAHOOTS, which stands for “crisis assistance helping out on the streets.”

It consists of teams who answer the needs of 911 callers. The calls are different because they are mental health crisis calls.

It’s working in Eugene, Oregon, but could it work in Chicago?

With a population of 657,100, the non-profit provides first responders for cases involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction.

“The mission of CAHOOTS is to send the right responder to the right situation,” said Tim Black.

CAHOOTS has been operating in Eugene for the last 31 years. Last year, it cost $2 million to run and answered one-fifth of the city’s 911 calls.

This summer, Denver adopted the CAHOOTS model and called it “star” which stands for “support team assisted response.

In January, the STAR budget will increase to $1.139M, which comes from Denver’s general operating fund, not Denver police’s budget.

STAR has answered 700 calls since June 1. The plan is 10 STAR vans will fill the streets. Each one will be equipped with a trained mental health clinician and a paramedic working hand and hand.

Vans will cover multiple shifts in a day. The pilot program only pays for four staffers. With time and more money, STAR hopes to hire 20 trained professionals.

“I think one of the big purposes of the pilot is the data collection piece,” said Vinne Cervantes with Denver Street Alliance for Street Health Response. “But it is also understanding the gap in the services structure that would make this program more successful.”

Big needs, they’ve come to find, include additional shelters and substance treatment programs. They’ve also learned so many trespassing calls are directly related to homelessness.

These teams receive 30 hours of classroom training and 500 hours of field training focusing on verbal deescalation, compassionate communication and harm reduction.

Crisis calls are sorted out at the 911 center. When mental health responders get the nod, they go alone. Police are only called when backup is needed. Last year, in Eugene, CAHOOTS responded to 18,000 calls and needed help from the police in 311 of them.

In Chicago, cases like Laquan McDonald and Quintonio Legrier echo the same deadly theme seen in other cities; untrained police officers responding to mental health calls or crisies stemming from it.

Alderman Rosanna Rodriguez (33rd Ward) introduced the CAHOOTS model to the Chicago City Council in September and believes with $150M to start, for the city, this should be a no brainer.

“I think we have a police force that have been highly unaccountable to the people,” Rodriguez said. “We are struggling with police reform seriously in Chicago.”

She also believes no one should be happier about this proposal than the city. Chicago has set aside $153M to settle police misconduct cases for 2020.

Communities in California and New York are also exploring the CAHOOTS model.

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