OLYMPIA, Wash.—On a rainy June day, the manager of a Motel 6 outside Olympia decided one guest had to leave. The woman had been smoking indoors and had an unauthorized visitor. She appeared to be on drugs and was acting erratically.
Normally, that manager might call 911, which would bring police officers to the scene. If the guest refused to leave, the cops might handcuff and arrest her for trespassing. They could find an open warrant on her record or drugs in her room. The interaction could easily escalate into violence, especially if the woman grew angry over facing jail time or another night on the streets. It’s the kind of low-level, “quality of life” call that takes up much of an officer’s day.
But over a year ago, Olympia started taking a different approach to nonviolent incidents caused by someone experiencing mental illness, addiction, or homelessness. Instead of sending armed officers to respond, the city dispatches “crisis responders” to diffuse the situation and connect the individual with services—a model now being considered by a growing number of cities across the U.S.
That day, instead of a police officer, the woman had two “crisis responders” knocking on her door, carrying only a radio and a backpack of clean clothes.
Inside her hotel room with the door ajar, the petite, 30-something blonde woman rocked back and forth, climbed over the bed, and started scribbling furiously in a notebook. “You’d be fucking mad too if someone came and said they were kicking you out because you had a visitor for 15 minutes,” she told them.
One of the crisis responders, Christopher Jones, wearing skinny black jeans and Dr. Marten’s boots, stayed calm. “The best case scenario, I call the manager and they say OK, I can get you another night,” he said. “The worst case scenario, you can come with us and I can see if we can get you a bed at the Salvation Army.” He promised a case worker would meet with the woman the next day.
She agreed, and the team planned to return later that morning to drive her downtown.
As protesters call for abolishing or vastly reducing police presence in communities, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, creating an alternative crisis team like Olympia’s seems like a straightforward place to start. Police respond to a wide range of problems, many of them relatively minor or involving someone having a psychotic episode or sleeping on the streets. Using civilian first responders instead, advocates of this approach say, keeps interactions from escalating into violence, and diverts people from jail and toward social services. It also frees up police resources to focus on more serious crime.
Since protests began in late May, cities including San Francisco, Minneapolis, Minn., Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles have announced they’re developing civilian first-responder programs. But currently, very few cities have such teams responding to 911 calls. Many police departments have instead increased mental health training for officers in recent years, or established dedicated mental health or homeless outreach units among cops. Some cities have paired police with social workers for certain calls. But advocates of alternatives say even a well-trained, armed officer can escalate a situation or land someone in jail.
Those encounters can also be deadly: An analysis by The Washington Post found roughly 1 in 4 fatal police shootings involved someone with mental illness. Recent shootings have left many asking what would have happened had police never been involved. Would Rayshard Brooks—shot by the Atlanta police officer who found him sleeping in his car—still be alive if an unarmed social worker had instead knocked on his window and asked if he had somewhere safe to sleep?
Handling violent crime accounts for as little as 4 percent of an officer's time at work. And delegating other crises—such as mental health or addiction issues—to non-law enforcement is an idea gaining traction. A recent survey found 68 percent of voters supported the creation of a “new agency of first responders.” (However, just a quarter of Americans say they support “reducing funding” for police departments.)
The small city of Eugene, Oregon, has had such a program since 1989, which now handles roughly 20 percent of 911 calls and has saved the city millions in police and emergency room resources, according to the program’s own estimates. CAHOOTS—which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets—dispatches a nurse or EMT alongside an experienced mental health worker for calls such as welfare checks, mental health episodes, public intoxication, or death notices.
“For 31 years we’ve been demonstrating that you can have something funded by the city responding to all sorts of situations without any involvement of law enforcement,” said Tim Black, the director of consulting for the program. Black is now working full-time on setting up CAHOOTS-like programs in other U.S. cities. “Think about somebody whose community has experienced oppression by law enforcement. There’s so much more potential for that interaction to go in a really negative direction.”
It’s only in recent years that the program has received national media attention and had other cities looking to recreate it, as officials grow more aware of how people with mental illness are funnelled into the justice system. Olympia launched its unit in April 2019; Denver started a pilot program this June; hiring for a program in Portland, Oregon, has been delayed due to coronavirus. “We don’t really know what this looks like when it gets scaled up to a major metropolitan area,” Black said.
The idea took off in Olympia thanks to a former police chief who had worked in Eugene. The crisis team’s roughly $550,000 budget is funded through a public safety levy, which was passed by voters in 2017. Now, the Crisis Response Unit is contracted by the police department, on call daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. From April through June of this year, the team made over 500 contacts with community members.
At the beginning of their shift, Jones and his partner Nate Wilson gather supplies from their downtown office, where tables are strewn with granola bars, chapstick, dog bones, cigarettes, coffee cups, and basic first aid supplies. A white board in the corner reminds them of people they need to check in with: David needs an ID, Chad needs an appointment with the Department of Social and Health Services, Lisa is getting kicked out of the Olympia Inn soon and needs a place to stay.
There’s no strict protocol for when the unit gets called instead of police. Only a fraction of the calls it receives come directly from 911 operators. Instead, the team is often contacted by social service providers, or is sent by police who recognize a situation is better suited for the team’s skills. Most often, they provide services while doing outreach with those sleeping in homeless encampments or downtown Olympia, or following up from previous calls.
“What is the nature of the crisis?” said Anne Larsen, the outreach services coordinator for the Olympia Police Department, who oversees the unit. “If it’s substance use, behavioral health, or poverty, that’s our wheelhouse.”
In a small city like Olympia, with roughly 52,000 residents, team members say they know half the people they come into contact with—a helpful familiarity that will be harder for bigger cities to establish. Most of their job is problem-solving for people with few good options: the elderly woman with dementia who keeps trying to hitch-hike away from her shelter; the woman with mental illness convinced a motel manager has stolen her luggage; the kid who keeps getting kicked out of treatment; the older man who won’t stop calling 911.
After visiting the Motel 6 that day, Jones and Wilson drove downtown to meet a man who said he was beaten and robbed in his tent the night before. His left eye was purple and swollen, and he talked about using heroin. When police found him earlier, he had expressed no interest in reporting the crime, but he accepted Wilson’s offer of clothes and first-aid supplies.
Then Jones and Wilson picked up a man experiencing suicidal thoughts and took him to a nearby hospital. They drive a white Sprinter van, spacious enough to transport people with dogs, wheelchairs, or shopping carts. As they pulled out of the parking lot, they passed a man walking in the pouring rain, a towel on his head and rubber gloves over his socks. Wilson hopped out and handed him a pair of shoes.
“I’ve been there—I was someone who lived in their car and was an addict,” Wilson said, back at the unit’s downtown headquarters. “I was someone who was afraid of the cops, who didn’t want them knocking on their windows.”
One of the biggest challenges, team members say, is a lack of long-term services in the Olympia area, especially for mental health care. They often get called to assist the same people over and over again. Olympia runs a “familiar faces” program to help fill this gap, which pairs peer navigators with people who have frequent run-ins with law enforcement, to connect them with housing, addiction treatment, and other resources. That program served 26 people last year; they recently received funding to serve up to 100 clients.
Support is especially scarce during the pandemic. The Olympia community day center, which provided shelter during cold or rainy days, has been closed. Admissions to psychiatric hospitals are limited. In-city bus routes were stopped for months. The team jokes that they’ve become “CRU-ber,” shuttling people to doctors appointments, methadone clinics, or city shelters.
Because they work closely with the Olympia Police Department and are dispatched through 911, Larsen said the program had to build community trust to prove they were “collaborative but separate” from law enforcement. “One of the biggest things we had to overcome is the idea that we would be snitches,” she said. “It’s about reassuring folks that we don’t run [their names] for warrants or anything like that.” Larsen noted that working with police makes it easier to access some services, like getting people identification.
Other initiatives are examining their relationship with law enforcement, given its history of racial violence. In Denver, organizer Vinnie Cervantes with the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response said he hopes the city’s program will ultimately be staffed by community-based organizations. Currently, it’s contracted with a mental health provider that works within the justice system. In Eugene, CAHOOTS is considering creating a separate emergency number for people to use if they’re uncomfortable calling 911.
Program coordinators say responders need to reflect the community they serve, especially as the model spreads to bigger, more diverse cities (both Eugene and Olympia are roughly 80 percent white). That also means hiring people with first-hand experience of mental illness, poverty, and the justice system. Federal policy, however, bans most people with felony records from accessing criminal justice information databases, which excludes most formerly incarcerated people from joining teams like Olympia’s Crisis Response Unit.
At a homeless encampment in the shadow of the Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia, residents said they wished there were more ways to contact the crisis unit that didn’t involve law enforcement.
“I called 911 to get a hold of you guys, but it got intercepted by the football team,” said Michael Stone, referring to Olympia police officers. He had recently called to try and get medical care for a friend in a nearby tent. “They were talking down to us. I don’t like that cops can intercept if they want. We need people that aren’t so combat-oriented to deal with the homeless.”
Allowing crisis responders to take the lead will take time. In the past year, the Olympia team says police officers are already deferring more calls to them and trusting them in a wider range of circumstances. But police still respond to most suicide calls, for example, out of fear that there might be a weapon.
“I think they’re hesitant to let us just show up,” said Aana Sundling, a crisis team member, walking into the encampment, where most of the residents seem to know her. “They’re worried about our safety. But the cops are becoming more aware. We’ve been out here for over a year and none of us have been assaulted.”