One possible answer comes from Eugene, Oregon, a leafy college town of 172,000 that feels half that size. For more than 30 years, Eugene has been home to Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, an initiative designed to help the city’s most vulnerable citizens in ways the police cannot. In Eugene, if you dial 911 because your brother or son is having a mental-health or drug-related episode, the call is likely to get a response from CAHOOTS, whose staff of unarmed outreach workers and medics is trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation. Operated by a community health clinic and funded through the police department, CAHOOTS accounts for just 2 percent of the department’s $66 million annual budget.
When I visited Eugene one week this summer, city-council members in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Houston, and Durham, North Carolina, had recently held CAHOOTS up as a model for how to shift the work of emergency response from police to a different kind of public servant. CAHOOTS had 310 outstanding requests for information from communities around the country.
A pilot program modeled in part on CAHOOTS recently began in San Francisco, and others will start soon in Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon. Even the federal government has expressed interest. In August, Oregon’s senior senator, Ron Wyden, introduced the CAHOOTS Act, which would offer Medicaid funds for programs that send unarmed first responders to intervene in addiction and behavioral-health crises. “It’s long past time to reimagine policing in ways that reduce violence and structural racism,” he said, calling CAHOOTS a “proven model” to do just that. A police-funded program that costs $1 out of every $50 Eugene spends on cops hardly qualifies as defunding the police. But it may be the closest thing the United States has to an example of whom you might call instead.