Substitutes for Police in a Crisis

Solutions Journalism Network

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody sparked not only nationwide protests, but also a surge of interest in reducing the role of police in responding to certain types of 911 calls. The idea: Send social workers, medics, and crisis intervention experts to handle all but the most potentially violent incidents involving people whose mental health, homelessness, drug problems, or minor annoyances require attention – and not the kind of attention that police bring with arrests and jail. Another police-custody death ruled a homicide, Daniel Prude's in Rochester, New York, only ratcheted up the calls for a new approach, owing to the fact that Prude was suffering a mental breakdown of some sort when his brother called 911 for help. 

Such 911 calls consume a large share of police officers' time and, critics contend, lead to unnecessary uses of force and arrests. Even when people survive the interaction, they can get entangled in the justice system without resolving the underlying problem. This is why journalists turned their attention in particular toward Eugene, Oregon, where a 31-year-old program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets) has a track record for responding to such calls with unarmed medics and social workers who rarely need to summon police backups and whose services save the city money. These teams, on call 24/7, can connect people with needed health and social services on the spot, and can de-escalate a crisis because of their training and by the mere fact that they are not police officers. Some CAHOOTS copycats have begun to spring up around the country, as have variations on that theme: hybrid teams of cops and social workers; the use of social workers sent in to handle follow-up visits after police leave; or cops with advanced training to provide the help themselves. 

Our Solutions Story Tracker has more than a dozen stories, and counting, about CAHOOTS. This collection includes standout examples of stories looking at CAHOOTS from various angles, some of which show how the model can't automatically be adopted everywhere instantly, along with stories on other cities and other models:

  • Grace Hauk reports on the various types of responses to this problem, focusing on the debate over fixing or excluding police.
  • Zusha Elinson's 2018 story, which is credited with making CAHOOTS a well-known model, tells how an agency like this sells itself to both ends of the political spectrum.
  • Krithika Varagur's weeks of observing CAHOOTS teams' work yields deep insights into the ways in which this response resolves immediate crises, big and small, without pretending to be a cure-all. 
  • Stephen Baxter and Beth Adams tell how their cities, Santa Cruz, California, and Rochester, New York, would have to grapple with a host of policy questions in order to replicate CAHOOTS' success. 
  • Elise Schmelzer reports on the initial success of Denver's new CAHOOTS-like service. 
  • Sara Holder and Kara Harris compare CAHOOTS to Stockholm's Psykiatrisk Akut Mobilitet (PAM), "to see what these kinds of efforts would look like when they are formally woven into a city and nation with a famously stout social safety net."