CAHOOTS to advise Calif. PD on mental health crisis team development

By Nashelly Chavez

The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

SANTA ROSA — The Santa Rosa Police Department has signed a contract with an Oregon nonprofit lauded for its innovative approach in sending mental health workers rather than uniformed officers to respond to nonviolent calls for help.

White Bird Clinic will consult with Santa Rosa on implementing a program similar to one it launched with police in Eugene, Oregon, in 1989. Strong support from city leaders, including Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro and City Manager Sean McGlynn, helped set the city apart from others vying to work with the clinic, which has seen interest in its work surge during a national reckoning with policing strategies driven by the deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement.

Police Capt. John Cregan announced Tuesday’s contract agreement during a virtual public safety subcommittee meeting on Wednesday.

White Bird’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets unit, CAHOOTS for short, sends teams of medics and trained mental health workers to urgent calls for medical or psychological help instead of police.

The Santa Rosa version of the unit would start with a one-year pilot program that operates 10 hours a day, though the goal is to expand the unit’s hours for round-the-clock service, Cregan said.

It would cost roughly $1.2 million per year to operate the unit 24/7, Cregan said in an August subcommittee meeting, though the department is exploring federal and state grants, as well as public and private funding programs to help offset the cost of operating the crisis response team.

The contract signed Tuesday is good for 18 months and up to $50,000 of consulting work, Cregan said in an interview Friday. Current plans put the debut of the pilot program as early as July or August, he added.

“Now that we’re actually in contract with White Bird Clinic, we’ll be able to expedite this,” Cregan said during the meeting.

The program would differ from a county-operated mobile support team, which responds after police have marked a scene as safe, Cregan said.

For the Santa Rosa program, the city’s 911 calls would continue to come into the department’s dispatch center, though members of Santa Rosa’s CAHOOTS-like unit would be sent to mental health-related calls without needing an officer present as long as no violence or weapons were reported, he said.

Other nonviolent types of calls, such as those involving homeless residents in need of help and people who are overdosing or intoxicated, would be another priority for the team, allowing Santa Rosa’s police force to focus on the city’s most serious crimes, Cregan said.

The Police Department has identified three potential partners to help get the pilot program off the ground, following the advice from White Bird Clinic to work with established groups and nonprofits in the area, Cregan said.

They include the mental health service provider Buckelew Programs, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, which does homeless outreach, and the Santa Rosa Fire Department, which would help develop the unit’s medical response, Cregan said.

Both Cregan and Navarro, the police chief, highlighted the regional interest from other law enforcement agencies in Santa Rosa’s program.

“It gives us an opportunity not only locally in Santa Rosa but also to be a light for the rest of the region as we go into this and start working on a new way to provide service,” Navarro said in an interview after the meeting.

A person who only identified themselves as Bailey during public comment said they supported the new program. Bailey has schizophrenia and did not want police to come to their door when they experience mental health issues, Bailey said.

“I definitely think mental health professionals should be handling mental health cases,” Bailey said.

Vice Mayor Natalie Rogers, a marriage and family therapist, said she hoped the new unit would include a diverse staff with the ability to speak different languages.

“Especially in the BIPOC community, dealing with mental health is not any easy thing, to ask for assistance,” she said, using an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. “So just in that way, it’s making it easier.”

Multiple attendees raised concerns over whether Catholic Charities was the right nonprofit to partner with the Santa Rosa Police Department on the pilot program, saying the organization was not popular among the homeless community.

A formal request for a proposal process would make a summer rollout of the pilot program unrealistic, Cregan said.

Councilwoman Victoria Fleming, who chairs the subcommittee, said it was bad governance to renew city contracts without a formal request for proposal process.

“They might be the best nonprofit in the world, but we have (request for proposals) in government to inspect our contracts and scrutinize them,” Fleming said. “I’m not for expanding that without a careful and critical eye.”

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, the city’s former police chief, supported the initial plan to get the program started with the three partners already identified by the Police Department, underscoring the urgent need of the crisis unit.

“I don’t want to delay this until January of 2022,” Schwedhelm said. “If this is the route that we’re going, I think it’s really strategic.”

Cregan, who has met with White Bird Clinic employees several times in the past six months, said he hopes to meet with them again next week to chart the way forward for the pilot program.

“We’re gong to be diving into all their policies and procedures, their equipment … and diving into the level of training needed for the clinicians,” Cregan said on Friday. “It’s critical for us to get that component of the team right.”

(c)2021 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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