PHOENIX — Two programs in other cities have served as models of how Phoenix could better serve people in a mental health crisis without involving police.
In Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS vans have been on the streets for decades. CAHOOTS stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, and it is a mobile crisis intervention program created in conjunction with the City of Eugene and the White Bird Clinic.
"We are dispatched through the public safety dispatcher, so we're kind of a fourth arm of public safety there,” Said Michelle Perin, a CAHOOTS EMT crisis worker.
Denver rolled out the STAR, which stands for Support Team Assistance Response, program last summer.
The teams in both cities operate vans available 24/7 with one counselor and one paramedic inside.
“I have a small kit that has epinephrine if we come upon somebody with a, you know, anaphylactic reaction or something like that because kind of time is money with those calls. I have Narcan for overdoses,” said Chase Lindquist, a Denver Health paramedic who works on the STAR van.
Both teams respond to 911 calls which are urgent, non-violent situations that do not involve serious crimes. They can respond alone or in tandem with the police depending on the situation.
“At-risk elders, youth, mental health has been in that, housing issues,” Chris Richardson with Mental Health Services of Denver explains the variety of calls. “Homelessness has been something that's come across 911 now.”
The teams are armed with information instead of guns. They can provide crisis intervention, de-escalation, safety planning, social service referral, and first aid.
“If you look at even a situation where you have a trespasser, for example, a person's mentally ill, they don't want to leave, the store owner needs to, you know, have them move on, but they're not moving on,” Perin said. “If we respond, and we're able to create a plan that maybe, you know, maybe they need to go for some food at the, you know, at the dining room, maybe they need some shelter options.”
Perin said they work with clients on solutions. They can even give a ride to a social service agency or the hospital. If an officer had arrived instead, it could mean a confrontation and a trip to jail for that trespasser.
Unfortunately, that's what officers bring with them," Perin said, that authority, that use of force, it often will escalate a situation just because of what policing represents.”
Phoenix City Council is considering a proposal to send crisis counselors, instead of police officers, to 911 calls involving mental and behavioral health issues. If approved, the city would dedicate $15 million a year, starting July 1, to expand the fire department's Community Advocacy Program. The funding would pay for 19 vans with more than 130 civilian crisis interventionists. They will operate around the clock responding to 911 calls involving homelessness, substance abuse, mental health, or behavioral health issues.
Phoenix's proposed program aims to reduce violent confrontations between police and people with mental health issues, but it also would serve to help find longer-term treatment solutions for people in crisis.
“It's going to be a hard transition, but I think it'll be worth it,” Perin said. She said the overall idea is to send the right responder to the right call at the right time.