Concerned about police response times, Mayor Wheeler eyes Eugene’s CAHOOTS program

Concerned about police response times, Mayor Wheeler eyes Eugene’s CAHOOTS program – May 2019

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler says calls about people in crisis on the streets take up too much time from law enforcement.

“I am very concerned about response times for police officers when there is a real public safety issue in our community,” he told a KATU reporter. “The call volume through our emergency communication center is growing rapidly. And most of the new call volume we’re getting is related to people in crisis on the streets.”

He believes the city of Eugene may have the solution. It’s called CAHOOTS, Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets. The 30-year-old program lightens the load for police and firefighters by helping people in non-emergency situations.

“We go out and we listen”

Multnomah County says about 45 percent of homeless people here self-identify as mentally ill.

Wheeler says the city’s dispatch and first response systems too often delegate crisis calls to police.

“It’s not always the right call to send a cop to a mental health crisis,” he said.

Micah McClendon, who is homeless and coping with mental illness, says people have called the police on him many times.

From inside his tent, he tells a KATU reporter he’s been homeless more than half of his life, coping with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s like the end of the world,” McClendon said about going through a crisis. “Just a whole lot of stress and you get really heated over little things.”

He says having an armed police officer show up “sends me into more of a rage. It even exacerbates things more.”

To help prevent that, dispatchers in Eugene are trained to often bypass police and firefighters and send in CAHOOTS.

“We respond to about 17% of the city of Eugene’s police patrol call volume,” said Kate Gillespie, a clinical coordinator with CAHOOTS.

Gillespie and Operations Coordinator Tim Black have each worked for the CAHOOTS program for about a decade.

“On a very basic level, what we do is we go out and we listen,” said Black.

A CAHOOTS crew that’s on a call is generally made up of two unarmed employees, diffusing situations and connecting people — sometimes even driving them — to services.

“We have a medic and a crisis worker that are working in tandem as a team,” Black said. “We respond to all sorts of behavioral health crises. We do welfare checks, support folks when they’re experiencing a housing crisis.”

Eugene says the program cost the city $799,344 last year and it’s looking to expand service next year.

But can Oregon’s largest city afford it?

“We can’t just take the CAHOOTS model from Eugene lock, stock and barrel and bring it to Portland because Portland’s a bigger city. It’s more dynamic,” said Wheeler.

And Wheeler says in Portland the elements of the response CAHOOTS provides are already in place.

But, he says, while visiting the CAHOOTS team earlier this year, he learned those services need to be better coordinated.

To reach his goal he set aside about $682,000 in his proposed budget to help first responders come up with a plan and implement it.

“It’s not easy to put it together and it doesn’t come cheaply, but it’s even more expensive to just let people in crisis continue to falter on our streets,” Wheeler said.

The mayor is optimistic the City Council will pass his budget for the plan on Wednesday. If it passes, it will face a second, final vote in June.

Once approved he says a group of first responders will present a report on how to best move forward in November, though he admits it may take a little longer.

Black says the current annual operating budget for CAHOOTS in Eugene and Springfield is $1.6 million, with about $800,000 each coming from Eugene and Lane County.

“Our Eugene services budget will increase to approximately $1.1 million next fiscal year as we expand our services within Eugene city limits,” Black said in an email.

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