WASHINGTON — Don’t call it “defunding.” But cities across the U.S. have been finding new ways to respond to social problems that don’t solely rely on sending in armed cops.
These programs haven’t received a lot of attention, and some are quite small, but cities have been working on local, alternative approaches to issues cops seem most obviously ill-equipped to deal with, including mental health crises, homelessness, traffic, drugs and sex work. Some have tried turning the response over to trained specialists who aren’t carrying guns. Others send the specialist riding along with the cop.
A city-by-city review by VICE News turned up several examples. New Orleans, Louisiana, has outsourced its response to minor traffic accidents to a private company. Eugene, Oregon, sends a small team consisting of a medic and a crisis worker to one-fifth of all 911 calls. Miami-Dade County, Florida, puts a tax on restaurants and uses the proceeds to help move the homeless into shelters and on to permanent housing.
These real-world examples point to how cities might ultimately turn the vague chant, “defund the police,” into a reality where true public safety is separated from the across-the-board social services the police are ill-equipped to handle.
They’re also still just a drop in the bucket. In most places, armed cops remain the catch-all response team handling everything from loud music to a busted tail light, with results that all-too-often spin out of control into violence or homicide.
“The difficulty in policing is that we use a one-size-fits-all model,” says Barry Friedman, who runs New York University’s Policing Project. “Police just aren’t trained to do a lot of the things they end up doing. They are trained for force and law. So you get force-and-law results.”
But even before Minneapolis police killed George Floyd while investigating an alleged counterfeit $20 bill, sparking nationwide protests and a debate about defunding police departments, cities were trying out new ideas. Their efforts focus on a set of problem areas that take up a lot of police time and attention.
Mental health. Police Departments say 10% of their contact with the public involves a person with mental illness, and those with untreated symptoms account for more than 1 in 4 fatal police shootings.
Homelessness. A wave of anti-loitering laws across the country have essentially made it illegal to be homeless, and tasked cops with enforcement. In 2016, one police department in California reported that over 30% of incoming calls were about homeless people.
Traffic. Why are armed cops in charge of traffic safety, anyway? The economist Alex Tabarrok points out that many police killings occur at traffic stops, like the shooting of Philando Castile.
“Whenever there are interactions with the police, you get opportunities for abuse and mishaps,” said Teri Ravenell, a law professor specializing in police conduct and civil rights at Villanova University. “A lot of us want to limit those interactions in general — especially in communities of color.”
The rollout of these programs hasn’t generally been accompanied by police budget cuts — even though, in some cases, they’re touted for their cost savings.
The U.S. is made up of about 18,000 different law enforcement agencies, so whatever change is coming is likely to be piecemeal.
But some have already been switching things up.
Mental health, crisis assistance
A group of activists in Eugene launched an unlikely alliance with local police 30 years ago to provide a new emergency response system. And it’s become a model for reformers around the country.
The program sends out two people, a medic and a crisis responder, instead of an armed cop. It’s called CAHOOTS — or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. In 2018, CAHOOTS executed 24,000 responses in Eugene and neighboring Springfield, with free service to anyone in a crisis. They roll up in a white van with medical supplies and blankets.
The program now handles about 20% of local 911 calls and costs $2.1 million a year — a tiny fraction of the combined Eugene and Springfield police budgets of $90 million, clinic coordinator Ben Brubaker recently told NPR.
The group estimates it’s saved $6 million in medical services costs.
Mental health, substance abuse
Denver just launched a program based on CAHOOTS known as the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR).
The plan involves dispatching a Denver Health paramedic and a social worker to minor 911 calls in a low-key van — instead of an armed cop.
Fewer cops and a “community safety and wellness task force”
The city is now exploring a new “community safety and wellness task force” instead.
The state of Colorado is using millions in legal weed money to send mental health professionals along with cops to mental health calls.
Eight cities, including Denver and Grand Junction, get up to $362,000 a year from the state’s Marijuana Tax Cash Fund to pay for co-responders.
The City of New Orleans has hired a company called On Scene Services to send traffic agents to the scene of accidents.
The idea was originally pitched as a way to free up regular police officers to handle serious crimes.
During the launch of the pilot program in early 2019, the average wait time for OSS was 90 minutes, compared to the average 2-hour-and-7-minute wait for regular cops.
The city of Austin, TX recently added millions for mental health response services via 911 calls.
In addition to police, fire department and ambulances, those who call for first responders can now also ask for mental health services. The group is called the Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (EMCOT).
Martinsburg, W. Va
A program called The Martinsburg Initiative aims to fight the area’s opioid pandemic with a new approach toward early intervention.
The system identifies kids with multiple risk factors and then reaches out to them and their families, offering up domestic violence counseling, parenting classes, mental health therapy, substance abuse treatment, and mentoring.
“Law enforcement has embraced the common wisdom that we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” wrote Maury Richards, chief of the Martinsburg Police Department, in an OpEd describing the project.
Drugs, sex work
Seattle pioneered a way for cops to try and remove themselves out the equation when it comes to handling small-time drug possession or sex work. It’s called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD.
The process involves a cop handing off low-level offenders to an addiction counselor or social worker, instead of turning them over for incarceration and a cycle of release and re-arrest.
The program has since spread to dozens of cities around the country, including Santa Fe, NM and Albany, NY. While it doesn’t cut the cops out entirely, one study found that those who entered the program were 60% less likely to get arrested again within the next six months compared to those who didn’t.
Santa Fe’s LEAD program says it costs $9,507 per individual over three years, compared to an average $42,000 per individual in the system as usual.
Homelessness, domestic violence
In the early 1990s, more than 8,000 homeless people camped on the streets of Miami. But in 1993, the county approved a plan to slap a 1% tax on restaurant bills and use the proceeds for housing and services.
The program has reportedly reduced the city’s homeless population by roughly 85% since then — although it hasn’t fixed everything. The tax also turns over 15% of the proceeds to domestic violence centers.
Cover: Protesters march down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol as George Floyd police brutality demonstrations and marches are held around Washington on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)