.Sonoma County Cities Developing Police-Free Crisis-Response Teams

It has been almost one year since nationwide protests against police brutality began in response to a Minneapolis Police Officer killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who had not committed a violent crime.

As a result of these protests, communities across the U.S. have looked at how city and county funds are allocated, highlighting the large size of police budgets relative to mental health services, substance use treatment, housing and resources uplifting communities of color. 

In Sonoma County, a few cities are now developing crisis teams that will act as first responders to nonviolent 911 calls concerning mental illness, homelessness and other crises for which police are not necessary. Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park are each developing programs modeled after Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), a program operated by White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon, for more than 30 years.

In 2016, Governing.com reported that mental health situations account for about 10% of all 911 calls in the U.S. With little funding for mental health services and housing resources, police are often first responders to non-violent emergencies concerning mental illness and homelessness. Over time, this trend has increased. 

A 2011 survey of 2,406 senior law enforcement officials found that 84% said there has been an increase in the mentally-ill population over the length of their careers, and 63% said that the amount of time their department spends on calls serving individuals with mental illness has increased as well.

In Sonoma County, the largest psychiatric facility is the jail. In 2017, the Press Democrat reported that nearly 40% of the 1,100 people incarcerated in the main jail and the lower-security North County Detention facility had a mental illness.

Activists argue that, because police officers are armed and are not mental health professionals, they respond in ineffective and often dangerous ways to people experiencing mental health crises. Statistics support the activists’  argument.

“While about 3 percent of U.S. adults suffer from a severe mental illness, they make up a quarter to one-half of all fatal law enforcement encounters, according to the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center,” Mike Maciag writes in the Governing.com article

In Sonoma County, Santa Rosa was the first to pursue development of a CAHOOTS-like team. As part of the city’s response to protests last year, Santa Rosa Police Captain John Cregan visited White Bird Clinic and presented on the program at an August 2020 City Council meeting. With the enthusiastic buy-in of Santa Rosa’s City Council and Police Department, White Bird Clinic entered into a contract with the City of Santa Rosa to guide the program’s development.

On April 12, Cregan told the Bohemian that the city has purchased two vans, just like those used by the Eugene nonprofit’s team. Cregan says that Santa Rosa has yet to name its program, but that the program will not be called CAHOOTS.

The projected start date is July 2021. At first, the service will operate 10 hours per day, seven days a week. Two teams will be established, each composed of a paramedic, a mental health professional and a homeless outreach specialist. The team is dispatched through 911, when dispatchers assess that it’s appropriate and safe to send this unarmed team of specialists. All three individuals respond as a team to every call.

“The two teams will overlap on Wednesdays, so they’ll have meetings that day and also be able to provide extra support and services, following up with people who they’ve interacted with through the week,” Cregan says. 

Santa Rosa is working with existing agencies to create the program. Cregan says that, for its first year, Santa Rosa will work with Buckelew Programs to provide the mental health professionals for the team, Catholic Charities for the homeless outreach specialists and the Fire Department for the paramedics.

In late January, multiple attendees at a Santa Rosa Public Safety Subcommittee meeting voiced concern that the city’s unhoused community doesn’t trust Catholic Charities, which has long been contracted with the city to provide homeless outreach. During that meeting, Councilmember Victoria Fleming echoed community voices calling for an open request for proposal (RFP) process.

“They might be the best nonprofit in the world, but we have [the RFP process] in government to inspect our contracts and scrutinize them. I’m not for expanding that without a careful and critical eye,” she said in the meeting. Fleming did not respond to a request for comment on April 12.

Cregan says the City has done a lot of subsequent outreach and presentations, and he finds the feedback he has received to be overwhelmingly positive for Catholic Charities.

“I do think it’s a valid question about the RFP process and making sure it’s a fair process for all the city,” Cregan says. “My general response is that we self-identified that there’s a strong and urgent need to have this team in our community, and so we want to get this one-year pilot program off the ground and running. There will still be the possibilities for RFP as we decide what the future of the team is.”

Cregan says the program, if successful, is expected to scale up to offer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by its third year of operation. It would cost roughly $1.2 million per year to operate the unit 24/7, so Cregan is seeking a range of funding sources for the program. Catholic Charities, he says, is seeking private funding to support their branch of the team.

Although funding sources for these new programs are still being determined, it is possible they will benefit from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed by President Joe Biden in March. Section No. 9813 of the bill is “State Option to Provide Qualifying Community-based Mobile Crisis Intervention Services.”

This section, added by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, grants states increased Medicaid funding for three years in order to provide community mobile crisis services like CAHOOTS to individuals experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder. Through Medicaid, the federal government would pay for 85% of the crisis-response programs. Wyden has said that Medicaid funding is appropriate because most people using these programs are low-income.

Although Petaluma announced their intention to create a CAHOOTS team after Santa Rosa, the county’s second-largest city is on track to begin roll-out of their team slightly sooner than Santa Rosa. A poll released by City Manager Peggy Flynn and Police Chief Ken Savano in February 2021 revealed that 59% of residents polled ranked establishing a CAHOOTS team the most urgent citywide policy priority.

Petaluma is in contract with Ben Adam Climer, who founded the consulting company C.R.I.S.I.S. after working with CAHOOTS in Oregon for five years. Petaluma is aiming to launch their program on July 1, begining with one vehicle operating 12 hours per day, seven days a week. They expect to be operating 24/7 by September of this year. Their mental health professionals will be staffed through Petaluma People Services, a nonprofit which provides a variety of programs, including senior services and homeless prevention.

Climer also presented information about the CAHOOTS model to the Rohnert Park City Council on April 6, 2021. The city and Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety appear eager to develop their own version of the program, too.

At the county level, the County’s Community Advisory Council is expected to present information about the CAHOOTS Model at a meeting in August.

The Bohemian spoke to Karin Sellite, director of the Sonoma County Mobile Support Team (MST), which is currently a team of mental health professionals who may be requested by law enforcement officers of the Sheriff’s Department at officers’ discretion once they have secured a scene.

Sellite says, “MST is currently in the process of increasing staffing in order to expand our coverage area to include Healdsburg, Geyserville and Cloverdale, and any unincorporated areas in between. We will also add Saturday and Sunday, so the program will operate 7 days a week [beginning] sometime in the next few months.”

She also noted that MST is considering alternative models that would allow them to respond independently from law enforcement.

Cregan and Sellite both told the Bohemian that there’s a lot of open sharing of ideas between jurisdictions right now, and that they are all seeking to expand services without duplicating efforts.

While community support for CAHOOTS-like programs is strong in Sonoma County, the rapid development of this type of alternative to police response throughout the country is also creating some hesitation among activists who are also critical of social work.

Speaking to Eugene’s Register Guard newspaper in March, Mineappolis Social Worker Deana Ayers warned, “If we’re trying to have social workers solve all these societal problems and be some kind of Band-Aid, then we also have to be doing the work within social work to get rid of this deep-seated, baked-in racism. Otherwise, social workers are just going to be police without guns.”

Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color Of Change, told the publication, “When we say we want to change policing, we’re not saying to just plug in other institutions like social work. We have to reimagine policing and public safety.”

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