Taking Cops out of Mental Health-Related 911 Rescues

Nationally, police officers carry the brunt of responding to mental health issues. In 2017, law enforcement agencies spent $918 million transporting people with severe mental illness, according to a 2019 survey from the Treatment Advocacy Center. It also estimated that officers spend 21% of their time responding to and transferring people for mental health issues.

Denver is one of at least eight cities considering an Oregon program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) to decriminalize and improve the treatment of people with severe mental illness — while saving the city money. The 30-year-old CAHOOTS program diverts nonviolent, often mental health-related 911 calls to a medic and a mental health professional instead of law enforcement.

Denver police and community service providers visited Eugene, Ore., in May to shadow CAHOOTS teams. Denver police officials said they are considering the model as an option to push beyond their existing co-responder program that sends mental health professionals on about six 911 calls a day. The Eugene CAHOOTS team shows up in work boots, jeans and T-shirts — and without police officers — in response to 911 calls diverted to the program.

For people with a history of volatile arrests often while in mental health crisis, this could make treatment more accessible, less traumatic and safer. One in 4 deaths from police shootings represent people with mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. The Eugene Police Department uses its CAHOOTS staff for more than mental health calls. They deliver death notices across the city, hand out water bottles and socks to people living on the streets, and take after-hours community medical referrals. The staff offers those services to the city for half the cost of a police officer.