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Alternative Responses to 911 - Santa Cruz ACLU Webinar Highlights CAHOOTS Program
by John Malkin
Thursday Dec 17th, 2020 10:47 AM
Tonight the Santa Cruz ACLU presents "Alternative Responses to 911" - a Zoom Webinar - Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 - 6:30 PM PST

December 17, 2020

Policing and community safety continue to be a focus worldwide and tonight the Santa Cruz chapter of the ACLU will further the discussion in a Zoom webinar from 6:30 to 8:30PM titled, “Alternative Response to 911 Calls.” An ACLU press release explains, “Law enforcement leaders and activists agree that many non-violent calls should be responded to by trained mental health and social worker professionals, instead of law enforcement officers.”

Santa Cruz ACLU board member Lee Brokaw says, “This webinar is designed to educate the public about the need and possibility for change. We will begin by discussing the mobile mental health services currently available to the community.”

Panelists will include Sarah Leonard, Executive Director of the Mental Health Client Action Network (MHCAN); Stephanie French, Operations Division Manager of the Santa Cruz Regional 911 system: Ashley Tran, Suicide Crisis Line Coordinator for Suicide Prevention Service of the Central Coast; and Ben Adam Climer, formerly of CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) in Eugene, Oregon and now a consultant to organizations and governments considering a CAHOOTS model.

CAHOOTS – Mobile Crisis Intervention Service (MCIS)
The White Bird Clinic was established in Eugene, Oregon in 1969 and in 1989 the clinic took it to the streets with CAHOOTS, an unarmed mobile response service of mental health counselors and EMTs. CAHOOTS responds to about 20% of 911 emergency and non-emergency calls per year in the Eugene/Springfield area.

Ben Adam Climer was a crisis counselor and EMT at CAHOOTS for five years and for one year was their schedule coordinator. Now he’s the consultant for California cities interested in adopting a CAHOOTS-style model called Mobile Crisis Intervention Service (MCIS).

“White Bird was tiny when it got started,” recalls Climer. “But you don’t need a clinic. You need a non-profit or group with the right perspective to provide crisis support. They need to be trained in listening to people, being empathetic and offering support. To form basic human connection and make people feel that somebody cares about them. It’s not that hard to do, if you act in a genuine and authentic way.”

Currently, when Santa Cruz police respond to a call where someone may be having a mental health crisis, Mental Health Liaisons (MHL) often accompany the officers.

“SCPD has two liaisons who work with patrol officers in non-COVID times. Now they respond on their own and meet officers on scene. They work ten hours a day and split the week,” explains Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills. “They are professional Licensed Clinical Social Workers with Masters Degrees and advanced training. They’re even part of our Hostage Negotiations Team. Annually the calls involving the MHL is about 1,350 in the city of Santa Cruz. Of those, 642 were for committal evaluations. 128 people were held for an evaluation as a result.”

Ben Adam Climer says of MHL services: “That’s the Co-Response model. Over 2,200 cities in the country have some form of Co-Response. If it were efficient then everyone would feel that. But it’s not really working. A lot of people don’t even know these exist.”

Climer also thinks the Co-Response model is too limited in scope, “MHL teams primarily go out and do a 5150 assessment; “Does this person need to have their civil rights taken away because of their mental health state?” The truth is that the human experience is vast and an array of crises derive from a slew of different types of experiences. And many of those do not meet the qualifications for being put on a 5150 hold. But they do require some human connection in order to resolve.”

“Co-Response is very focused on mental health calls and is designed to handle people who are having acute suicidal or psychotic episodes,” says Climer. “The CAHOOTS MCIS (Mobile Crisis Intervention Service) model is designed to handle acute suicidal and psychotic episodes and it’s also there to catch a lot more.”

Some communities have established crisis response teams outside of government systems like CAT-911 in Los Angeles, Anti Police-Terror Project in Sacramento and the international Don’t Call The Police, created in June, 2020. Climer says he respects such efforts but adds, “Because police and fire departments have a monopoly on responding to 911 calls, it’s super hard to create an alternative without getting into that dispatch system. You have to create a new number, advertise it and people have to remember to call it. We’re better off committing efforts to get CAHOOTS into the system.” Locally, YARR (Your Area Rapid Response) responds to specific emergencies related to federal ICE agents and hate groups. (831-231-4289)

SCPD Chief Andy Mills told the Sentinel: “If we can come up with a model that works – like the CAHOOTS model – then I’m all in favor of us figuring out how to fund that, how to make it happen.” But Mills cautions, “You don’t destroy the old stadium until you build a new one. Meaning that you’ve got to have some place for people to go. And there is nothing in place right now other than a very small-scale, limited model – CAHOOTS – that has taken hold in a couple of cities.”

According to CAHOOTS they’re assisting development of MCIS programs in Olympia, Denver, Coos Bay, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Indianapolis, New York City, Hartford and other cities. Ben Adam Climer is currently in conversation with activists or city officials in Huntington Beach, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Lompoc and Los Angeles about establishing mobile crisis units.

Chief Mills doubts the need for more crisis responders in Santa Cruz; “A city our size is not going to have enough business, if you will. Maybe it could be combined with the Sheriff’s jurisdiction, with the whole county. But then your response times become very slow.” Mills adds, “There are a lot of those calls but not probably enough for a full-time person. Of the 100,000 calls for service that police responded to, or proactively did themselves, about 60,000 of those people called us for help. Of those 60,000 about 1,900 were for mental health help. So, is 1,900 enough? You’d have to have a staff of two on-duty at a time. With a relief factor of two and a half persons.”

“1,900 calls is quite a lot - that’s a lot of work,” responds Climer. “Assessing how many SCPD calls would be diverted by a CAHOOTS-style program would have to be done systematically. And we’d also look at what crises are happening because people are not housed.”

“Sometimes what gets confused is this idea that CAHOOTS responds only to “mental health” calls. That’s a misnomer because while mental health, homelessness and substance abuse are all things that we do respond to, what we are is a crisis response team,” says Climer. “People who are having crises get a CAHOOTS response. And those crises might develop from a mental health issue, a substance use issue, or a homelessness-related issue.”

“Santa Cruz has an abnormally large density of people living unhoused for a city its size,” Climer says. “Numerous reports show that a large amount of what police respond to relates to people living outside. A lot of those calls would go to a CAHOOTS-style program.”

Sarah Leonard, Executive Director of MHCAN, told the Sentinel that 60% of their members are unhoused. MHCAN (Mental Health Client Action Network) is a peer-run support program for and by people diagnosed with severe mental illness, “whether they agree with their diagnosis or not.” Leonard told the Sentinel the current Co-Response Mental Health Liaison program is not effective. “We’ve been asking for years for a CAHOOTS system to be established here. We’ve received zero response from the people who hold the resources,” says Leonard. “People like us need special care and often don’t get that. It would save many people from enduring and re-experiencing traumas.”

Lee Brokaw told the Sentinel: “Depending on how you look at the data, 40-60% of the calls could be covered by CAHOOTS. The majority of calls that SCPD responds to are homeless, mental health, suicide, wellness checks, substance abuse.” Brokaw adds, “It’s about responding to 911 calls without law enforcement when law enforcement is not needed, and can be harmful.”

SCPD Chief Mills disagrees: “I am not sure where ACLU got their data. CAHOOTS would not respond to 40-60% of calls. Checks are officers “checking” locations where crime occurs, also known as hot spots. For example, drug dealing, incidents of theft and violence are confined to small spaces and frequently the same victims and suspects. Suspicious persons or vehicles are calls for police service; rarely does it have anything to do with mental health. Even the mental health or drug addiction calls where CAHOOTS might be able to respond, if there is a mention of violence or weapons, officers would be sent. These calls are frequent.”

The local ACLU says their numbers come from the 2017, 174-page city-commissioned CPSM (Center for Public Safety Management) report on SCPD which details categories of police calls for service including; Checks (21.9%), Suspicious Incident (22.1%), Assist (4.6%), Drug/Alcohol (3.8%), General Non-Criminal (6.4%) and Medical/Mental (2.3%).

“Chief Mills seems to be responding solely to the issues discussed at the City Council Study Session on mental health crises,” (Nov. 16, 2020) notes Peter Gelblum, Santa Cruz ACLU chair. “We're looking for a model that responds to calls about homeless people allegedly misbehaving, welfare checks, substance abuse, suicidal people, as well as mental health issues.”

Regarding calls related to unhoused people Chief Mills explains, “We don’t know how many calls are homeless related. We do not ask about a person’s housing status. The calls are frequent.” Mills continues, “I’m at a loss to understand what others might do with the homeless. Santa Cruz County lacks the backend services to adequately care for homeless individuals, and there are a significant portion of homeless who do not want, or are not in a frame of mind, to seek help.”

In a blog titled “De-fund the Police” (June 16, 2020) Chief Mills wrote, “I recently spoke with a sergeant about defunding. He said, “If someone could take the homeless issues entirely from us and stop us from responding to mental health calls – please take the money!” The sad reality is that no one else has stepped up as the first responder to these issues.”

Lee Brokaw says, “My take is that the police aren't trained (for mental health crises) and they’ve said they don't want to respond. Too often the event goes south (Sean Arlt). Send a cop with a social worker and someone having a mental health crisis will fixate on the cop, cop car, badge, gun, intimidating presence and the social worker/mental health worker will not be able to connect. Send an alternate responder with an EMT and you'll get a different interaction.”

“The Arlt and Smith killings made the need for this change concrete, rather than abstract,” recalls Peter Gelblum. “Both cases cried out for a crisis counselor type of person to be at least part of the response, and they resulted in both SCPD and Sheriff adding mental health experts/counselors to their teams.” Gelblum emphasizes, “Many cases can be handled by only the crisis counselor and an EMT, without any law enforcement.”

Sean Arlt was killed by SCPD in the midst of a mental health crisis on October 16, 2016. Frightened and wielding a rake, Arlt was Tasered and then shot in the head and chest by SCPD Officer Erik Bailey. A month later, on November 19, 2016, fifteen-year-old Luke Smith was killed near Watsonville by Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Vigil. Smith had wounded his uncle and father with a knife during an LSD-induced mental health crisis and was cornered, alone outside, when subjected to Taser, rubber projectiles, a police dog and then killed with one shot from an AR-15 rifle at close range.

Jeffrey Arlt, Sean’s father, told the Sentinel, “Not only do a sixth of Californians experience some mental illness, but one out of every twenty-four have a mental illness so serious it becomes difficult for them to function in daily life.” Arlt adds, “There is not a lack of funding but a lack of will on the part of our representatives to make California a model for the United States, if not the world, in providing mental health services, including housing, to its citizens.”

Chief Mills told the Sentinel, “If CAHOOTS is called, they are experts at talking to people and getting them help. The police for the most part are not able to just walk away from a person who may not want to cooperate. We normally have to take some kind of action.” Mills adds, “It’s very possible because they are not in a police uniform, there is not a history of police interaction, maybe that will tamper down some of that interaction.”

Ben Adam Climer agrees, “If you come with the power and authority to put somebody in an involuntary hold and they’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious and maybe suicidal, they’re feeling this pressure; “I have to say the right things. And if I don’t, I’ll be taken to a hospital against my will.” It’s not a conducive environment to be able to have a positive human interaction.”

“It seems that many situations become violent only because law enforcement escalates the situation, which is one of the problems this program (CAHOOTS) is designed to avoid,” offers the ACLU’s Gelblum. “The model is flexible. Non-law enforcement responders can call law enforcement if needed, and law enforcement can call the non-law enforcement folks if they find that that's more appropriate.”

CAHOOTS responders have never harmed anyone, or been harmed, according to Ben Adam Climer. In 2019, CAHOOTS went to 24,000 calls and asked for police backup less than 150 times. Climer adds that CAHOOTS has saved the city of Eugene millions of dollars per year. He says 50% of all SCPD calls are homeless-related and could be answered by four CAHOOTS-style mobile crisis units with only 20% percent ($2.5 million) of SCPD’s budget. (2021 SCPD Budget is $25,640, 938). To put it another way, says Climer, instead of spending $300 per response for SCPD an MCIS model costs about $100 per response.

“We cannot expect police officers to do everything under the sun,” says SCPD Chief Mills. “There are people better suited for slivers of the pie, such as talking to people with chronic drug, alcohol or mental health issues. I am in favor of putting the correct resources in the field to manage issues more effectively… I would be in favor of traffic collisions investigations being farmed out if legally possible. We have been approached in the past by vendors who would take all collision reports, except serious injury accidents.” Mills adds, “I am being fairly pragmatic and want our community to make an informed decision with eyes wide open. The people who elect to respond to mental health calls for service need to be adequately trained in not only mental health, but de-escalation and disengagement.”

Register for Santa Cruz ACLU “Alternative Responses to 911 Calls” Zoom webinar on Dec. 17th, 6:30 PM:

Video of City of Santa Cruz “Mental Health Crisis Response” Study Session (Nov. 16, 2020):

Video of the Oct. 29, 2020 introduction to CAHOOTS by Ben Adam Climer presented by Santa Cruz County NAMI (North Alliance on Mental Illness):

Screen shot: Santa Cruz City Council Study Session on Mental Health Crises (Nov. 16, 2020) with slides from Ben Adam Climer, California CAHOOTS consultant.
by John Malkin
Thursday Dec 17th, 2020 10:47 AM
Screen shot: Santa Cruz City Council Study Session on Mental Health Crises (Nov. 16, 2020)
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