It's Not Supposed To Be Easy

There will always exist bad people who choose to harm others. It is difficult to imagine the challenges police officers face almost daily when the lines between good and bad become blurred.

The intense debate in our society currently centers around whether police shootings have been racially motivated. That this debate has moved to our streets causing violence and bloodshed is tragic.

What if there is a solution which potentially reduces police shootings against citizens of all races and color? What if a solution would by extension address some of our racial tensions? Would this be something worth pursuing?

Eugene, Oregon has been running a program for thirty years with some interesting results.

Police Officers

Stopping bad people from doing harm is one of the reasons we desire a capable police force. Maybe the primary reason. To serve and protect. To keep us safe. To come to our rescue when someone is causing us harm, or desires to cause us harm.

Not all people who interact with police officers are bad. Speeding violations, for example.

We have a system for interactions where the police are required to sort out a dispute or consider an arrest, and the lines between good and bad become blurred. It involves judges, juries, and attorneys. The whole innocent until proven guilty thing.

Without trying to simplify our deep societal issues facing us, herein lies one of our problems. Many people are not getting their day in court. They are not surviving their initial encounter with law enforcement.

Maybe The Solution Defines The Problem

Eugene, Oregon, in 1989, established the CAHOOTS program. When a 911 dispatcher receives a call, perhaps someone on the streets who is acting strange, the dispatcher can make a determination whether to send police, or people from the White Bird Clinic. If a team from the clinic is dispatched, it consists of two people; a medical professional and a crisis worker.

The crisis worker and medical professional can do a number of things in assessing the situation. Handle it right there, call in for more medical professionals, or request law enforcement.

I have read some of the arguments against this type of program. The main fear being the two-person team will end up in a situation which leads to their harm. This has not been the result in Eugene.

One of the workers at the White Bird Clinic, Morgan, trained in crisis management, does not carry a weapon. Morgan said, of 24,000 calls received by the clinic in 2019, a worker was required to phone for police backup only 150 times. Further, in 30 years, no one from the clinic has suffered a serious injury or death.

Apples and Oranges Really Are Different

Eugene, with a population less than 200,000, is a very different city than Chicago or Atlanta. As a society, when we learn of a neat idea, there is often a rush to declare, “there’s the solution! Let’s implement a federal mandate!”

Results to any changes implemented could take years, and span multiple presidential administrations, before we know if the changes were worth the effort. Solutions to deep societal problems are not supposed to be easy. And they will likely look very different for larger cities than the example in Eugene.

However, the example out of Eugene could serve to open a window into potentially identifying one of our issues. Maybe we are asking too much of our police departments.

One can imagine the elevated emotions with a person on the street who is having some sort of mental breakdown, but does not yet appear to be a threat to anyone. A police officer arrives and maybe this person thinks, “crap, now I’m going to jail.”

  • Keep in mind. If a weapon is reported to a dispatcher in Eugene, then police officers are dispatched. The White Bird Clinic team is dispatched, on average, for about 20 percent of 911 calls.

Do we want to extend the training for police officers across our country to make them capable crisis management professionals? Or would we rather reduce their burden, enabling police departments to focus more on violent crime?

Money Is The Root of All Taxes

When police officers are called to a scene it is rarely just one vehicle. Depending upon the circumstances, it could be two cruisers, and could involve paramedics in an ambulance as a precaution. When personnel from the clinic are dispatched, two people in one vehicle arrive. It is considerably more expensive to send police officers.

The budget for the Eugene police force is approximately $70 million a year. The CAHOOTS program, covering two cities, Eugene and Springfield, has a budget of $2.1 million annually. It is estimated the CAHOOTS program saves taxpayers $15 million annually.

City governments should strive to have a positive relationship with their citizens. In many of our cities, it is apparent this is not the case. Though our narratives may vary as to the causes, or even the reactions our governments should take, we can probably become unified in our desire to resolve this.

Change is already in process. Greenville, NC, announced a new program which will allow for mental health professionals to be dispatched along with police officers. Something similar was announced in Raleigh, NC, as well as Albuquerque, NM, and New Orleans, LA.

Solutions for our cities should be a communal effort. That’s what it is supposed to be about. Communities working together to make life better for everyone.




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