All across the country, cities are investing in unarmed crisis response teams to de-escalate non-emergency mental health situations. The idea is to divert certain 911 calls away from armed police and into the hands of trained crisis specialists.
Last week, the LA City Council took a step toward developing an unarmed crisis response program. And Huntington Beach in Orange County just launched a mobile crisis response team with two trained counselors.
Both of those initiatives are modeled after one program that’s been around since 1989 in Eugene, Oregon, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS).
“CAHOOTS responds to basic welfare checks, suicidal folks, family disputes, anything and everything you could possibly imagine that someone might call for assistance on that’s not a criminal or violent issue. It’s not a medical emergency. It’s not a fire,” says Ben Adam Climer, who was a crisis counselor at CAHOOTS for five years before returning to SoCal to help implement similar programs here.
One thing that sets CAHOOTS apart from other similar programs, he says, is that it’s integrated directly into the 911 dispatch system, so the team can be sent out as the first responders and easily call for law enforcement as needed.
“There have been a lot of efforts to create teams like this, but they’ve often been laid at the feet of [mental] health authorities,” he says. “The reality on the ground is that mental health calls often come in as a suspicious person or a welfare check. It’s not labeled as a mental health call. It’s labeled something else. So police have still been the primary responders to those types of circumstances.”