September 3, 2020
A 17-year-old girl in Oregon sent a photo of her slit wrists to her friend on Snapchat. Her friend called authorities for what’s called a welfare check or wellness check: checking in on someone to make sure they are alive and safe, and if they need further help. Calm, thoughtful de-escalation of the situation can spell the difference between life and death. But far too often, situations like this can turn deadly after the police arrive. The presence of an armed police officer who represents the binding authority of the state can be emotionally triggering to many who are already in an emotionally-heightened state. And for those who may be experiencing an acute mental health episode, it may cause the person to act in an even more heightened way. If police, who are not typically trained as counselors or licensed mental health professionals, react aggressively instead of following proper professional mental health protocols, fatalities may occur. This was the case for 36-year-old Travis Jordan, whose girlfriend called the police, worried that he would take his own life in Minneapolis. When police arrived to the scene, Jordan refused to open the door. The officers contacted their sergeant, who said that they could not force entry into the home, even through the backdoor. Through the window, they could see that Jordan was holding a knife. The officers pulled their guns while Jordan was still inside, seemingly on the verge of opening the door. Jordan eventually stepped out, and the officers shot him eight times, killing him. The police later said that they were not accompanied by a mental health professional. Another man named Damien Daniels was also having a mental health criss, and was killed during a wellness check. There are numerous other examples of when wellness checks such as these turn deadly.
Back in Oregon, that 17-year-old girl lived. The police never went to her house for the wellness check. Instead, Chelsea Swift, a crisis worker, medic, and EMT and her work partner arrived at the teen’s home. “We get sent to say hi. She’s pissed that her friend called, but we end up having a great interaction. We do some counseling. We do some wound-care on her cuts.” Swift says it’s the integrated approach that can bring the seemingly unwilling to safety, “It’s that medical and mental health piece. She did not want to talk to us but because it was like, ‘Hey, we need to clean up this flood why don’t you just let us do that’….now we’re talking and having a really good resolve for everyone.”
Swift doesn’t just go on wellness checks. If someone calls about a person experiencing homelessness in the street, sometimes instead of the cops, she’ll go. She sometimes mediates disputes and arguments. She uses techniques that take the power dynamic of citizen vs. the state out of the equation. Sometimes she’ll squat to physically lower herself—a non-threatening, deferential move to make people feel at ease and safe. If someone is screaming, she doesn’t tell them to stop, but moves with them outside to allow for more space and calmness, less clutter. “It’s more than deescalation, it’s about changing that outcome, however that happens.”
Again, Swift says it’s the lack of power dynamics that facilitates safe, effective interactions, even in some of the most dire situations. “Safety is a huge concern. So what really, really keeps us safe is that people know that we cannot force them to do something they do not want to do. We do not have that power. We do not want that power.” The group Swift’s with does not have the power of the state, and this lack of power is very compelling.
Could this be the future of public safety?
Police exist to protect and serve the public. To defend and to ensure the safety of individuals and of communities. To stop and prevent crime. But in the wake of national, consecutive #BlackLivesMatter protests and continuous instances of unarmed Black people being shot by the police, serious debates about the nature of policing are now mainstream. Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African-American man in Kenosha, Wisconsin who was shot seven times in the back by police officers, is one of the most recent examples.
People are asking, is there an alternative to traditional policing? Alternatives, plural? There are a few models that are already here. Models that could form a blueprint for a different, and safer, future.
Chelsea Swift works for CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets), which is, as you can see, both an acronym for a group and a play-on-words. Founded in 1989, this mobile crisis response organization is in “cahoots” with the police, but not in a way you’d expect. Founded in Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTS runs out of the city’s police-fire-ambulance communications center and in Springfield, Oregon through an non-emergency number. CAHOOTS is a department of White Bird Clinic, a social service agency.
Workers are sent out in pairs (one medic and one crisis worker who has a requisite amount of experience working in mental health fields) and utilize trauma-informed harm reduction and de-escalation techniques on the ground. “CAHOOTS provides immediate stabilization in case of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, assessment, information, referral, advocacy & (in some cases) transportation to the next step in treatment,” its website reads. More than 60 percent of people it services are experiencing homelessness, and 30 percent live with what is called severe and persistent mental illness. Last year, CAHOOTS reports, out of the 25,000 calls it received, only 250 required police backup.
Teams do not carry weapons and, again, are not law enforcement. Even so, CAHOOTS makes it clear that its organization is not designed to replace the police. Rather, it responds to non-violent calls so that police officers do not have to.
According to White Bird Clinic, CAHOOTS saves the Eugene Police Department approximately $8.5 million every year.
Currently, CAHOOTS is working with communities in both Denver, Colorado and Olympia, Washington to develop similar programs, and is poised to assist in the creation of such programs in cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, NYC, Indianapolis, Indiana, and more. Additionally, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden plans on introducing a bill for implementing the CAHOOTS model across the country via. increased Medicare funding.
Other models treat violence as a public health issue that requires integrated community-based solutions. Cure Violence is a NGO founded by Gary Slutkin, M.D., an epidemiologist and former head of the World Health Organization’s Intervention Development Unit. It functions around the world and has numerous hubs in U.S. cities. It takes a drastically different approach to public safety than what traditional policing offers. “Fundamentally, I think people misunderstand violence to be about some kind of moral failing, ” says Charles Ransford, the Senior Director of Science and Policy at Cure Violence Global. It starts with individuals, he says, and their communities—and understanding the why behind violence, not just the what. “We really have to fundamentally understand what they’ve been through and what brought them to this point in their lives. Almost all the time [they] have been a victim of violence, there has been unaddressed, untreated, unjust violence that has been directed towards them.” Untreated violence towards an individual has a similar effect as an untreated wound or disease, he says. “They have a very textbook definition of PTSD, they’re showing mental trauma, they’re in a state of hyper-arousal because they themselves have been traumatized. So we have to understand the people themselves as having a health problem that has been going completely untreated.” Indvidual cases of untreated trauma create a heat map, similar to a heat map in an epidemic or pandemic. That’s why violence is a more like a contagion than a mark of moral weakness. A contagion that won’t be stopped without addressing the core issues and root causes.
Cure Violence has a three-pronged approach:
- Utilizing trained outreach workers and violence interrupters. They work to prevent violence by mediating potentially lethal conflicts in communities and following up with people when things have been resolved. They also work to prevent retaliation after violence has already happened. Trained workers visit the person who was shot (and their family and friends), for example, and work to comfort and cool down emotions to ensure that retaliatory violence does not emerge in the future.
- Engaging at-risk communities through culturally-appropriate outreach workers through a “meeting them where they’re at” approach. They connect individuals to necessary social and education services they may need, things like job training and drug treatment. And like in a public health approach, it centers on behavior change and access to resources.
- Mobilizing community members (like service providers, faith leaders, small business owners, and more) to help change social norms around violence, both before and after violent acts occurs through “conveying the message that the residents, groups, and the community do not support the use of violence.”
In the United States, Cure Violence programs have been implemented in over 20 cities, and such programs have resulted in up to 73% reduction in shootings and killings in some communities. The Center for Court Innovation’s Save Our Streets program is based on the Cure Violence and the Chicago CeaseFire model (a model that’s resulted in a 16-28 percent drop in shootings in some cities). It combats gun violence by changing social norms and using violence interrupters, education, street outreach, conflict mediation, and other grassroots approaches, all by respected community members. It operates out of NYC’s Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and out of Mott Haven and Morrisania in the Bronx. Violence interrupters and outreach workers proactively defuse potentially violent situations that could escalate. According to a S.O.S. report, average monthly shootings in Crown Heights, Brooklyn decreased by 6 percent over the course of a year, whereas in surrounding areas, where the program was not implemented, shootings increased between 18 and 28 percent. Research also found that out of gun conflicts projected as being “very likely” to happen, 60 percent of said conflicts were completely resolved.
Although such programs are not perfect, general research indicates that more resources, community investment, visibility, and innovation are needed to increase success rates and provide meaningful alternatives to traditional policing, and thus, prevent police violence.
Let’s look at another model. The majority of interactions between the police and civilians happen on the roads. Things like traffic stops, then, are most likely to become potential officer-involved killings. A 2015 study from the Department of Justice cites that out of the 50 million Americans who came into contact with the police, 25 percent of those cases were through being pulled over in a car. Other cases includes millions of car and traffic accidents. The fact that these officers who interact with motorists are armed means that the mere presence of a gun on the scene could turn the most benign incident lethal. The killing of Philando Castile, a non-violent, legal gun owner, and Sandra Bland illustrate this point. There are many other lesser-known cases such as that of Samuel DuBose, an African-American man who was pulled over by police in Ohio for a missing license plate, and was subsequently shot and killed in 2015.
In a town called Highways in the UK, the government employs Community Safety Officers in various of low-to-no violent situations. Unarmed officers in marked vehicles conduct many of the traffic stops and patrols. They also work to connect people in the community to the social needs they require, like taking them to the hospital or to a social worker if they need care. They have the ability to issue tickets for what are considered “minor disorders”, aka low-level crime and what’s considered to be antisocial behavior, etc. These officers, CSOs, still work with the traditional police and are still funded by central government. An evaluation of the program cites that due to the use of CSOs and other Neighbourhood Wardens, there was a 28 percent decrease in victimization levels (levels of people who were victims of crime).
Traditional policing’s current structure and role is untenable to a free, just society. Alternatives exist, and there are more models to be discovered, implemented, and improved. But it starts with awareness and community investment in a better future for ourselves.