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8 things to know before establishing a mobile crisis intervention co-responder program

There are many lessons to be shared from the partnership between the Eugene Police Department and CAHOOTS to deliver mental health outreach


CAHOOTS is a contractual agreement with White Bird Clinic, a third-party service provider that has been providing a variety of community mental health services since 1970.

Photo/Joel Shults

Eugene, Oregon, is fielding dozens of calls and visits about its long-standing program of law enforcement cooperation with social workers. Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets also known as CAHOOTS – is a contractual agreement with White Bird Clinic, a third-party service provider that has been providing a variety of community mental health services since 1970. The contract for response services includes the Eugene Police Department’s provision of two response vehicles for the program. The program has run successfully for over three decades.

Here are eight things to consider before implementing a mobile crisis intervention co-responder program in your jurisdiction:

1. Alternate response rather than mutual response

There are a variety of co-responder models incorporating non-law enforcement (NLE) personnel. Specially trained police personnel or police civilian employees, robust referral plans, crisis teams and case management are just a few examples.

In the CAHOOTS model, appropriate calls for service are referred to the team consisting of trained mental health and emergency medical personnel with no police response unless required. Having the NLE responders as part of the radio network enables them to advise dispatch of what they encounter and what the disposition of the call is, as well as monitoring police activity that may involve citizens known to the NLE team who could provide helpful information to responding officers.

Where NLE responders accompany officers on the initial response, or are employees of the agency, some of the independence and efficiencies may be lost compared to coordinating with an existing provider.

2. Ensure the service infrastructure is present

The NLE team will be making referrals just like law enforcement. If underlying services are not readily available, the system fails at its foundation.

3. Have a contract in place

The Eugene model began in partnership with an existing social services organization. The arrangement is formalized with clear expectations of what calls and services the NLE team will provide. This enables dispatch to triage calls and make a direct assignment to the NLE responders based on known parameters.

Since the terms “social worker” and “mental health provider” can cover a variety of education and training standards, the contract should set competency expectations of NLE responders.

4. Train call takers

The decision tree for sending NLE rather than police to a call for service is like any other process that dispatchers commonly use. Screening for safety is obviously the priority. Steve Zeedyk, communication supervisor for the regional communication center that is the liaison with the CAHOOTS NLE team, affirmed that the cooperative program has worked well and has taken some load of off of EMS and fire responders, as well as police.

5. Train the community

Once the program is in place, community members should have ready access to the non-emergency number to call, whether that is to the NLE provider or public safety dispatch. Many callers will seek out the NLE responders to intentionally avoid police based on fear or lack of positive police experiences.

6. Train the officers

Police officers are quite competent in handling most calls that may, under new programming, be assigned to NLE teams. Many citizens encountered by NLE assets will get the same referrals and services that they would have with a police response. And police will still be responding to many of the calls that result in use of force encounters that will be highly scrutinized by the public. When NLE and police are on the same call, lines of authority and final decisions on disposition should be clearly understood in advance.

Eugene police are very supportive of the program in their jurisdiction, according to Michael Klews of the Eugene Police Employees Association. His only concern about other agency’s new programs is that the underlying support infrastructure of social services must pre-exist the formation of an NLE response team.

7. Recognize culture and mission differences

Many interests of both the police and NLE responders will align, but some will not. Social service agencies have long been partners with law enforcement in getting help to people, but political and world view differences will exist. Both professions will come to respect the unique challenges each face, but police agencies moving calls to NLE teams cannot expect those teams to have an interest in disclosing non-violent criminal activity they may encounter in their responses.

If the NLE are not employed directly by law enforcement, they will be members of an agency with its own decision-making process and operational ethos that may be in contrast with police management.

8. Watch the stats

Gathering data on the effectiveness and efficiencies of programs is essential for budgeting and staffing. Optimistic expectations that fewer police will be needed with the addition of an NLE asset, or that major cost savings will occur are likely to be unrealized. Deconstructing total manpower needs before and after the initiation of NLE response cannot be a simple matter of counting the NLE calls and subtracting that number from total police calls.

Law enforcement will continue to be assigned to calls involving weapons, assaults and victimization. Law enforcement will also be on many of the scenes where the NLE teams are, either initially before referral or after being asked for assistance by the NLE responders. In those cases, the police resources needed may be significant.

In addition, if police are relieved of some percentage of calls, that simply enables them to respond to other calls for service that may have previously been unanswered or to devote resources to specialized units. Few departments are overstaffed before or after the NLE assets are in place.

NEXT: Outcomes improve when law enforcement and mental health services combine forces

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.