Story at a glance
- Portland, Ore., has approved $4.8 million for a street response program touted by local advocates.
- The program is similar to others around the country that seek to replace armed police officers with unarmed, trained responders.
- The move follows weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd and police brutality.
The Portland City Council passed a budget last week cutting at least $15 million from the police bureau, according to local news outlets, following weeks of protesters’ cries to “defund the police.” The budget for the upcoming fiscal year also includes $4.8 million in funding for Portland Street Response, a program proposed as an alternative to policing.
The pilot program was born out of research and advocacy by Street Roots, a local newspaper that works with the houseless community, which led to a pilot proposal from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty's office in 2019.
The proposal cited the City of Eugene’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Street (CAHOOTS) program, a crisis intervention team dispatched through the Eugene police-fire-ambulance communications center.
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"The City is working to change the way it responds to some of its 911 calls," said the city of Portland in a report on its response to homelessness. It also cited a report from The Oregonian, which found that more than half of all 911 calls in 2017 were made about houseless individuals.
“These calls clog up the emergency response system, have little effect on the core issue of houselessness, and further criminalize people for simply existing,” the city said.
Instead of sending armed police officers to deal with some of these calls, the city will now send a team of paramedics and mental health professionals trained in de-escalation to respond to low-risk calls. In the Eugene-Springfield Metro area, where CAHOOTS operates, the team provides immediate stabilization in cases of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, ranging from suicide prevention to conflict resolution and mediation to substance abuse.
In situations where the report includes a crime in progress, violence or a life-threatening emergency, the city may still send police or emergency medical services instead of or in addition to CAHOOTS staff.
Ebony Morgan, a crisis worker with CAHOOTS, told Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) the organization responded to 24,000 calls last year, adding up to roughly 20 percent of all calls that went to the police. In less than 1 percent of those calls, CAHOOTS requested backup from the police.
Other cities have formed mental health units within the police department to provide similar functions. Joe Smarro, a longtime member of the San Antonio Police Department’s mental health unit, told MPR he sees his job as social work, rather than police work.
“What I know is by living proof 100 percent of calls I’ve gone on have been able to help people. And I’ve never had to be injured or injure anyone else to do it,” he told MPR.
In the weeks since the police killing of George Floyd, protesters have taken to the streets demanding change in the nation’s law enforcement systems. With cries to “defund the police” gaining traction, some are pointing to crisis response systems such as CAHOOTS.
“It’s powerful and incredibly moving seeing our message reach the audience we’ve always wanted it to reach,” operations coordinator Tim Black told USA Today. “We’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, and it’s always been about putting our head down and getting to work. But now there are mentions of CAHOOTS everywhere. For our staff, there’s almost disbelief at the volume of validation.”
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