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Some Want Police Out Of Mental Health Calls, But How Would That Work?

A San Diego police car parked in downtown San Diego, Oct. 24, 2018.
Susan Murphy
A San Diego police car parked in downtown San Diego, Oct. 24, 2018.
Some Want Police Out Of Mental Health Calls, But How Would That Work?
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

Alfred Olango, grieving the loss of a childhood friend, was in the midst of a mental breakdown. Fearing for his safety, his sister did the only thing she felt she could at the time — call 911.

When officers with the El Cajon Police Department arrived at the scene, Olango pointed a vape pen at them. Mistaking it for a gun, one of the officers shot him dead.

The September 2016 killing sparked days of protest and renewed calls to reform how authorities respond to mental health calls. Yet, nearly four years after Olango’s death, if a call comes in regarding someone in a mental health crisis in San Diego County, they will most likely be visited by a police officer.

It’s not like this everywhere.

For decades, police in Eugene, Ore. have partnered with a nonprofit on a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS.

Last year, the program’s crisis workers responded to about 20% of the 911 calls the city received, which is a total of about 24,000 calls. Only 150 of those needed backup from police.

The CAHOOTS program has a team of 50 and costs about $2.1 million a year, or about 3% of the Eugene Police Department's annual budget. And the program saves the city an estimated $15 million a year by eliminating hospital visits and jail time.

Some Want Police Out Of Mental Health Calls, But How Would That Work?

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San Diego Police's budget for fiscal 2021 is more than $566 million. If 3% were diverted to a similar program, it would cost $17 million, which is about half of what the department spent on overtime in the last fiscal year.

If Olango and his sister had lived in Eugene, they might have been visited on that fall day by Ebony Morgan, a CAHOOTS crisis worker. Morgan said when she gets a call, she goes to the scene with an EMT partner and first assesses the situation to ensure it's safe. And she shows up unarmed.

"My first question is, 'how can I support you, what are you trying to do and what do you need,'" she said. "I remain flexible and ready to adapt to the situation, the trick to deescalation is to remain flexible and not be so set in what your response is going to be."

Khalid Alexander, the founder of the criminal justice reform advocacy organization Pillars of the Community, said it has long been hard to contemplate such an approach in San Diego County.

"We can't even imagine a world where mental health professionals deal with mental health issues," Alexander said "We can't imagine a world where money goes to schools instead of militarizing police and arming them with tanks and military equipment."

In the wake of the wave of protests against police violence here and elsewhere that followed George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, Alexander and other reformers see some small changes being made. But, he said, they don't go far enough.

Alexander is among the supporters of a program recently approved by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Similar to CAHOOTS, it features a crisis team countywide that could respond to mental health calls in place of law enforcement.

Berkeley police officers respond to a call for a man having a mental health crisis, Jan. 13, 2020.
Andi Dukleth
Berkeley police officers respond to a call for a man having a mental health crisis, Jan. 13, 2020.

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Supervisor Nathan Fletcher proposed creating the teams as part of a broader law enforcement reform effort. Under the current plan, mental health calls coming in through 911 or the county’s crisis line could be routed to the teams.

"Law enforcement is not trained to deal with those situations, that's not what they inherently do," Fletcher said. "The other problem is the presence of law enforcement has the potential of escalating a situation, when we need to deescalate."

He estimates the program would cost $10 million a year, and would be accessible to departments countywide. Fletcher added that cost savings would come by reducing the times when police cars and fire engines are sent to mental health calls.

However, even if San Diego establishes its own version of CAHOOTS, police still need more training on handling mental health calls, said retired Sgt. Rick Schnell, who led the SDPD's Homeless Outreach Team for 15 years.

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"When it's 3 a.m. and someone is having mental health issues, who else are you going to call?" he said. "People are still going to call the police and then we have to respond to these calls."

Schnell also said police departments need to make better hiring decisions, bringing people onto the force who can maintain calm.

"Police have to understand how intimidating we can be, and it's on us to calm people down," he said. "If you're angry inside, this is not the job for you."

Schnell trained his officers to step away from people and not command them to listen. "You can back off, you don't have to make that arrest," he said.

The community also needs to take more ownership of people struggling with mental health, said Erin Kerrison, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare.

She described a hypothetical situation that many people have likely encountered: a person in mental health crisis walking down the street, yelling and waving his arms.

"There are two questions, how did the person exhibiting a psychotic episode in the middle of the street get there, and the second is why do people call police to deal with it," she said.

Kerrison suggested one answer might be that people view the person as a "public eyesore" and call the police to have that eyesore removed. But, she said, it would be better to focus on why the person is there in the first place.

"Because whether police pick the person up or not, I promise someone will still be there the next day," she said.