Even the most simple police encounters can be very stressful, which often makes it difficult to communicate properly. This tends to escalate the situation, considering that most police demand nothing short of complete obedience, even if they are dealing with someone who is not a suspect in a crime.
This can be scary for most people, but for someone who suffers from a mental illness and may already have challenges with communication, these types of encounters can be especially terrifying. Sadly, police across the country have repeatedly proven that they do not have the proper attitude or social skills to deal with mentally ill people. This is extremely obvious when police are called to do a “welfare check” on someone who is struggling with mental illness, only to shoot and kill the person because they didn’t “follow orders” to the officer’s liking.
A 2017 report issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics used self-report survey data from inmates and found that at least 37% of prisoners and 44% of jail inmates had a history of mental health problems. A large portion of these people were convicted of nonviolent drug crimes or offenses associated with homelessness or poverty.
Studies have shown that people who suffer from mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than the average person. According to the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, a minimum of 1 in 4 fatal police encounters ends the life of an individual with severe mental illness.
To prevent the unnecessary incarceration and death of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, a few US cities are experimenting with a program that designates mental health experts as the first responders, instead of police, in cases where it is appropriate. The program, called, Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), began in Oregon and is currently operational in at least 8 US cities.
In cities with the CAHOOTS program, mental-health-related 911 calls are treated as medical issues instead of law enforcement issues.
Tim Black, the Eugene CAHOOTS operations coordinator, explained that the mental health professionals who show up to the calls wearing street clothes, and act more like a friend than an authority.
“That difference in uniforms can assist folks with letting their guard down and being open to accepting the help that is being offered,” Black said told Health News.
Dr. Sasha Rai, director of behavioral health at the Denver County Jail, says that rehabilitation is nearly impossible for a mentally ill person in Jail.
In Eugene, where CAHOOTS has been running for 30 years, the program also provides services for the city’s homeless population.
It was estimated that the city of Eugene diverted 17% of 130,000 calls through the CAHOOTS program in 2017 alone. Denver is the latest city to experiment with the idea, but it is not an official policy there yet. The city has been struggling with a 9% increase in mental health-related 911 calls over the past three years, so there is a very good chance that they will implement this policy, if not out of genuine concern, to save money in the budget.
The program is also running in Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Vancouver, and Portland.