How Mental Health First Responders in an Oregon City 'De-escalate' Conflict and Save Lives
When someone in distress calls 911 in Eugene, Ore., crisis responder Ebony Morgan and members of the CAHOOTS team regularly offer assistance in place of armed police
Ebony Morgan's father was killed in a police encounter when she was 5 years old.
The experience and its aftermath left Morgan, 30, distrustful of armed officers. But now she's found a way to partner with them through a program in Eugene, Ore., that has evolved into a model for law enforcement crisis response in American cities.
Dubbed CAHOOTS -- Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets -- it's an effort created and overseen by Eugene's nonprofit White Bird Clinic, a social services center, and has been primarily funded through police departments in Eugene and Springfield, Ore., since 1989. And it's grabbing the attention of law enforcement agencies and communities across the country.
It works like this: When 911 calls come in, those that involve suicide threats, homelessness, substance abuse and other mental health-adjacent crises are diverted away from law enforcement and over to CAHOOTS' two-person teams consisting of an EMT and a mental health counselor.
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CAHOOTS staff who respond can provide everything from clothing, food, water, toiletries and first aid to on-the-scene counseling — or a ride to a crisis center or hospital. In 2019 CAHOOTS teams answered 24,000 calls and required police backup only 150 times.
"If the call turns out to be less about criminality and more about behavioral health, being able to do a warm handoff to CAHOOTS is really important," Eugene police chief Chris Skinner tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I think they prevent crime from happening," he says. "They're able to de-escalate or resolve those crises before people spiral out of control."
As protesters nationwide have called for changes in policing — and to "defund" what critics see as a militarized police response — more than 200 city or law enforcement agency leaders have reached out to ask how Eugene and the CAHOOTS staff of 40 do it. In one case, a CAHOOTS-inspired program in Denver last year saw 748 calls diverted from police — a nearly 3 percent drop in armed officer response — with zero arrests over six months.
Tragedies like one in Rochester, N.Y., in 2020, keep the conversation in the forefront.
As Daniel Prude, 41, became increasingly erratic during a psychological and drug-induced episode while visiting his family there on March 23 of that year, his brother dialed 911. Responding officers found Prude naked in the street, then handcuffed him and covered his head with a "spit hood" to keep him from spitting on them in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prude's death in a hospital seven days later was ruled a homicide attributed to "asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint."
"I placed a phone call for my brother to get help, not for my brother to get lynched," Joe Prude said at a September 2020 news conference. The involved officers were suspended but not charged -- and amidst the outcry that followed revelations about Prude's death, Rochester mayor Lovely Warren announced reforms included a "Person in Crisis" response team to handle future mental health or substance abuse calls.
"The current laws on deadly force have created a system that utterly and abjectly failed Mr. Prude and so many others before him," New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement after Prude's death. "Serious reform is needed, not only at the Rochester Police Department but to our criminal justice system as a whole."
For Morgan, it's a personal calling. After enrolling in nursing school, she was working in registration at the White Bird Clinic when she saw how CAHOOTS workers interacted with people. They were "so humanistic and grounded in what the clients needed," she says. To her, they represented a new way to approach people in crisis — one she hadn't seen from police.
She joined the program as a crisis intervention worker in 2020. Now, she says, she works alongside police officers where her voice and theirs carry equal weight, and she believes the work has helped to save lives.
"I don't want to enter some of the spaces they do, and I'm not prepared to do that," she tells PEOPLE. But she adds, "I'm part of a change."