911 call volume in NC city could increase if unarmed responders hit the streets

North Carolina

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Durham city leaders are considering cutting up to 20 vacant police positions over the next year and using those funds to hire social workers and nurses to respond to mental health calls.

But how will this work and is the city ready to for this change?

CBS 17 spoke with leaders of a program in Eugene, Oregon that has been sending mental health responders to calls since 1989.

CAHOOTS, which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, is a program that sends a medic and behavioral health specialist in a van to certain calls.

“Unlike police officers, they are not armed,” said Emily Macauley, 911 Communications Supervisor in Eugene. “They have a lot of experience dealing with people who have a mental health crisis or are experiencing some type of loss or grief.”

The program has 45 unarmed responders on staff and usually has a total of three teams working per shift during the day and two teams working at night.

A dispatcher at the 911 call center in Eugene will determine if to send a CAHOOTS team.

Eugene city officials said these CAHOOTS teams will often be dispatched to intoxicated subjects, mentally ill individuals, and non-emergency medical care calls.

“Sometimes they’ll respond along with police in the area. They’ll maybe stage in the area a few blocks out and wait for police to deem if it’s safe,” Macauley said.

One concern that some people have brought up is what happens if a mental health call unexpectedly turns violent, and how will unarmed responders be protected?

If that happens, officials said the CAHOOTS teams will radio police for backup.

“They’re on the radio with police at all times,” said Chris Hecht, executive director of White Bird Clinic, which helps staff the program.

Hecht said in 2019, there were 150 calls where a CAHOOTS team had to call for police backup, but that’s out of 18,583 calls in the entire year. He said he could not remember a time when an unarmed responder was injured or hurt while on a mental health call.

He said, overall, the CAHOOTS program has helped divert 10 to 20 percent of calls from the Eugene Police Department.

“There’s a tremendous chance you could free up law enforcement and resources to do the other things that we all are trying to find time to do,” said Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner.

But Eugene officials said there are some challenges that come when cities create these programs. For instance, they said 911 call volumes can increase when cities start sending out unarmed responders.

“If people know that they can get a different level of services through the police department, there could be an increase in calls. So, depending on what your staffing is, that could impact it,” Macauley said.

As CBS 17 has previously reported, there are 26 vacancies at the Durham 911 call center and some 911 calls are not getting answered within 60 seconds.

Durham city officials said they are working to address the 911 staffing shortage. They are recruiting training officers and they are adding a fifth 911 operator academy later this year.

Hecht added that the CAHOOTS program could help address Durham’s problem with homelessness, substance abuse, and drug addiction.

“Not only does it help provide a much better solution for the folks who are in crisis, but it also saves our community a lot of money,” Hecht said. “We divert a huge number of ambulance rides and trips to the ER. For the last year that we have solid data, we estimate that in medical costs alone, not looking at public safety, we saved the community $14 million.”

Hecht said the program costs about $2.2 million a year and it’s funded by Eugene Police, Springfield Police, and Lane County.

Durham’s plan to create a program that sends unarmed responders to calls is part of the city’s budget for fiscal year 2021-2022.

Durham city councilors will be voting on the budget on June 21.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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