PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Pairs of counselors, medics and social workers, all dressed in jeans and hoodies, respond thousands of times a year to 911 calls involving mental health crises, substance use issues, panhandling complaints and other non-emergency situations.
The workers arrive in a van, talk to anyone involved, provide resources for services, and often offer a ride to a medical center, detox, or even an emergency room. Occasionally, they call for police backup.
That’s what’s been going on since 1989 in Eugene, Oregon, according to members of the CAHOOTS program who testified to Providence City Council members on Tuesday.
CAHOOTS — which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets — is one of the programs Providence leaders are researching as they decide whether to create a social service unit to respond to certain calls in Providence, a move that could potentially shrink the size of the Providence Police Department.
“Simply having another type of first responder who is not obligated to enforcement … is going to have some beneficial impacts on a community,” Tim Black, operations coordinator at CAHOOTS, said during the Zoom meeting of the City Council Finance Committee.
Black said the program was launched from a local community health clinic called White Bird, which realized many people couldn’t get to their clinic to access services. By calling 911 when in crisis, they were ending up having unnecessary police encounters.
Medical emergencies and criminal activity are still responded to by firefighters and police officers in Eugene. But a mental health crisis or substance use issue that is not emergent gets dispatched to CAHOOTS, where counselors work to de-escalate the situation and then connect residents with services.
Occasionally, the situation does escalate to an emergency. Black said he has administered the overdose-reversal drug Narcan six times, even though the original call was not for an overdose. (Firefighters, not CAHOOTS, respond to overdoses.) Daniel Atonson, a former medic at CAHOOTS who is attending Brown University’s medical school this fall, said police backup was called 150 times last year.
Atonson said he thought bringing a similar program to Providence would “reduce instances of fatal police encounters.”
Integrating the mobile clinic with the 911 system reduced police encounters for people experiencing behavioral health crises, Black said.
“Folks didn’t have to look up in the yellow pages the White Bird Clinic crisis number,” Black said.
There was hesitation from officers to let them in at first, Black said, especially since the health clinic was founded in the 1960s by counterculture members.
“There was some apprehension from public safety to all of a sudden have a bunch of hippies on the police radio,” he said. “What quickly became evident was that there was this new group of compassionate people that wanted to be doing first response work.”
The program has now grown to divert 24,000 calls a year away from police and fire in Eugene, Black said. The program also spread to the city of Springfield, where a 5-year pilot is wrapping up.
Since CAHOOTS is integrated with the police department, Black says the workers have traditional police radios so they can jump in and respond to calls.
But he said they otherwise remain at a “arms length” from police by maintaining their headquarters at the health clinic, not in the police department, and there are efforts underway to create more distance from police so the mobile clinic can be a “third branch of public safety” on its own.
“The CAHOOTS uniform is jeans and a hoodie,” Black said. “We want to really visually look different than traditional public safety.”
He noted that CAHOOTS members don’t have any weapons — not even pepper spray — so they sometimes need to call police backup for a situation that escalates. But the goal of CAHOOTS is de-escalation, not getting some arrested and brought to jail or transported to the hospital when they don’t necessarily need it.
The program — along with others, such as a similar program in Denver — are among those being considered as a model for Providence. Council members at the meeting had positive reactions to the testimony from Oregon, but also noted that Providence is very different from Eugene, and 2020 is very different from 1989.
“The demographics are quite different,” Councilor Nirva LaFortune said, pointing out that more than 70% of Eugene residents are white. She also noted that hundreds of activists testified that they want Providence Police to be defunded and replaced, not expanded by adding another unit under the police umbrella.
“The community is saying we want something that is completely independent from the police and is created by community members,” LaFortune said.
Angela Bannerman Ankoma from the United Way of Rhode Island, which provides non-emergency services and disaster response, also testified before the committee about the services they provide.
She said United Way receives thousands of calls a month at the number 211, and connects people with services and resources from housing to addiction recovery support to food stamps. Some council members expressed interest in folding the United Way into any program Providence launches.
It’s not yet clear how much a new social service response unit would cost in Providence, or whether there would be a corresponding cut to police that would qualify as “defunding,” which is what community members in Providence and across the nation have been calling for.
The budget for the fiscal year that started a week ago is still stalled, as city leaders await word on state funding (the state, in turn, is awaiting word on federal funding before finalizing its own budget.) The Providence Police Department is currently proposing a budget of $88 million in the new fiscal year.
According to CAHOOTS, the Eugene Police Department saved $12 million in 2017 because of calls diverted to the program.
“I’m excited about this conversation,” Chairman John Igliozzi said. “Where it goes, and where it’s funded, we can all figure that out.” The discussion was continued to a future meeting.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said last week he could potentially support the social service unit, but said “the devil is in the details.”
He noted that any cuts to the police department would subsequently require diverting calls elsewhere. The department’s budget is largely made up of salaries and benefits, so a big cut to police would likely mean a decrease in the number of officers.
“We’ve burdened our police in this country way too much,” Paré said. “911 is used and abused, and we end up going and getting in the middle of situations where we’re not the right entity or profession to be dealing with those things.”