Sunday Commentary: We Need to Re-Imagine How We Interact with Mental Health Crises

By David M. Greenwald

We hear the term defund the police.  It is easy to mistake it for another concept—abolish the police.  But it’s not, and that’s part of the problem.  Perhaps a better way to think about it is to re-imagine the police.

My week started with a trip to Walnut Creek, of all places.  Middle class, upper middle class community is not where you would expect to find a police shooting.  But that’s the point.  It could happen to you.

Miles Hall was Black, but he was also the child of educated, professional parents, growing up in a community of privilege.  As Taun Hall, his mother, put it, they were living the American Dream, a Black family in Walnut Creek.

But mental illness is a great equalizer and one day, with Miles having an episode, they called in the cops.  The cops, rather than attempting de-escalation, went in hot, pursued Miles in the street—and when the bean bag didn’t work, they went to the guns and shot and killed him.

Was he charging them?  Maybe.  The video is panned far out and very makes it difficult to discern details and depth perception.  He had a crowbar, but it appeared to me that he had it facing down and was attempting to run around the police rather than at them.

Later in the week, video was released in the West Sacramento shooting of 88-year-old Robert Coleman.  I was on a conference call in West Sacramento, organized by Martha Guerrero and the NCAAP.  Once again, concerns were raised, not by the authorities but by members of the community, that this elderly Black man, who did have a firearm on him, needed mental health intervention—not deadly force.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said this about the shooting: “After reviewing the footage, I felt even more deeply the profound tragedy of Mr. Coleman’s battle with mental illness, as well as the trauma endured both by his family and by police officers on the scene.”

But it doesn’t appear that anyone is all that concerned that an 88-year-old man was shot and killed.

And, of course, we also revisited the decision that the cops made in the death of Breonna Taylor.  There is understandable frustration that once again an innocent life was taken by police.  And, while we can debate over the culpability of the individual cops in this case, there is no denying that major systemic problems exist here.

Some believe that the police are simply not qualified to deal with some of these challenges—particularly on the mental health front.  For them, defunding the police means diverting resources away from police and toward others who are better equipped to handle the challenges of the 21st century world.

But I had a good discussion last week with Sheriff Jerry Clayton of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The progressive sheriff, in our podcast, pointed out that the people who are advocating defunding the police are people who live in areas where they’re not calling the police at all.

He said, “When I go to communities that are economically challenged… they’re not talking about defunding the police.”  He said, “They’re telling me, sheriff, we want to be sure that you have what you need.”

He added, “We want to be treated with respect and to understand Black lives matter.”

The sheriff did say, “I’m all for re-imagining” but he believes, even on mental health calls, that police need to be there.

That’s the conversation that should be had on the left.  One of the problems we see in all three of the incidents above is that the police came into the situation hot.  And they treated it like an enforcement rather than a mental health crisis.

The Breonna Taylor situation screams for us to re-examine how warrants get served, because unfortunately the Breonna Taylor’s death is a scene that plays out time and again—the police’s own actions here put the residents into a difficult situation, because they had no way to respond to a situation where the residents had no reasonable way of knowing that they were being raided by law enforcement rather than intruders.

But it’s Miles Hall that really captures the essence of the need for a different response—the call was for help with a mental health crisis and it ended tragically.

On the Zoom on Thursday, however, Tracie Olson of the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office and others noted that there were alternatives to sending police officers armed with guns out to handle mental health crises.

In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTs has been operating since 1989 with very good results.

All across the country, people are looking at ways to “re-imagine” public safety in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.

CAHOOTS seems like a natural fit.  They are part of the nonprofit White Bird Clinic and the remarkable part of their operation is they have a number of medical professionals and social workers who man vans, drive around Eugene, and deal with people who are homeless or who have severe and persistent mental illness—they very rarely need to utilize the police and their encounters do not end up in fatalities.

Administrators with CAHOOTS said they don’t see their teams as replacing police, but doing things police were not adequately trained to do.

“What we hear again and again from law enforcement is that they are tired of being the defacto mental-health response,” CAHOOTS’ administrative coordinator Ben Brubaker told the LA Daily News in June. “They are tired of picking up the pieces of our behavioral-health and physical-health systems.”

The Daily News reported: “Last year, CAHOOTS, on a $2.1 million city-funded budget, handled 24,000 calls, 20 percent of the 911 calls for Eugene and Springfield.”

Here is the remarkable thing—24,000 calls last year, only 150 police backups.

They estimate the city of Eugene saved $8.5 million per year from would-be police responses, and millions more on other calls that would have gone to the fire department or EMT services.

But forget about that.  The point here shouldn’t be cost savings, not that I oppose that idea—the point here is that instead of 24,000 interactions with police where something can go wrong, there were only 150 of them and they had mental health professionals on the scene calling the shots.

That’s the frustrating thing—there are better ways to do this; we’re just not doing it.

How that looks, I am open to discussing.  CAHOOTS has found ways to respond, with the need for police backup being very rare.  But that is where this conversation should go.

But how do we even get there?  The NY Times this weekend ran a piece: “When a majority of City Council members promised to ‘end policing as we know it’ after George Floyd’s killing, they became a case study in how idealistic calls for structural change can falter.”

“I think the initial announcement created a certain level of confusion from residents at a time when the city really needed that stability,” said Mayor Jacob Frey, who declined to support the pledge. “I also think that the declaration itself meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people — and that included a healthy share of activists that were anticipating abolition.”

Re-focusing this discussion on a simple concept like the CAHOOTS model could ground the discussion in what is possible versus what is aspirational.  For all of the claims that we need policing, there are few looking at the stats which show that the way we police now really doesn’t work.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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31 Comments

  1. Alan Miller

    We hear the term defund the police.  It is easy to mistake it for another concept—abolish the police.  But it’s not, and that’s part of the problem.

    Then it’s just a really bad slogan.  That isn’t on the people who hear it and don’t ‘understand’.  That’s like Oscar Meyer trying to sell hot dogs with the slogan “Buy Hamburger Buns!”

    1. Richard McCann

      The real problem is that it means very different things to its supporters. I believe Mychael Denzel Smith started the movement, and really wants to completely abolish the police. He makes very good points in the first part of this article, but he doesn’t appear to comprehend the full range of what the police to (e.g., what about psychopaths and sociapaths? They are not going away.) The more moderate elements got stuck with this slogan that doesn’t fit their goals.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/police-reform-is-not-enough/614176/

      1. Ron Oertel

        The real problem is that it means very different things to its supporters. I believe Mychael Denzel Smith started the movement, and really wants to completely abolish the police. 

        I didn’t know who came up with it, but I figured that it was initially intended to be taken literally. So, this doesn’t surprise me.

        In that sense, it is not a “misleading” term.  Others have apparently tried to twist the original meaning and “sanitize it”, afterward.

        1. Keith Olsen

          What’s kind of misleading is we’re most likely going to end up spending more with all the new social workers than we’re ever going to save with defunding the police.

        2. Eric Gelber

          we’re most likely going to end up spending more with all the new social workers than we’re ever going to save with defunding the police.

          This movement is about saving lives, not money.

  2. Alan Miller

    Here is the remarkable thing—24,000 calls last year, only 150 police backups.

    OK, that’s convincing.  What was the overall cost savings vs. just the police doing this?  i.e., when cost of CAHOOTS is added in?  I’m open to the idea.  Do note there still is a Eugene Police Dept.  And thanks for the point about the lower income areas wanting police protection, and a recognition and change with racial issues.  I’m all for changing how warrants are executed, and I’ve been in and near situations where authority came in “hot”, as you say, and created a potential for violence that didn’t need to be there.  All very real.  Police abolition — that isn’t going to happen.  So the “discussion on the left” as you call it, needs to include not letting the radicals take over and ruin it for everyone on the right and the left who recognize a need for changes.

      1. Dave Hart

        There’s also the savings in fewer people beaten, choked or shot. But if it’s not monetized, it’s not “worth” it even if the total dollar cost is higher?

        1. Dave Hart

          So less coroner time adds to the savings: maybe greater than $8.5M. And there are the cost savings of not taking people to the ER who didn’t die but were beaten, choked and shot. That wouldn’t show up in police savings either.

        2. Dave Hart

          Excuse me, Alan, but it wasn’t I who decided to fall down deep in the weeds.  If the savings are $8.5M anywhere and there are fewer people mistreated why ask about the cost of the program that allowed those savings?  Fewer citizens injured, fewer deaths. Why ask how much that cost? What is it “worth” to avoid being injured or killed? If the net cost is higher, so what?

        3. Dave Hart

          Why ask why?  Because saving lives and reducing injury should not depend on a financial calculation.  That is morally abhorrent.  We don’t ask about the price of all the body armor for police officers if it saves one life.

        4. Alan Miller

          That’s the bleeding heart “if it saves one life” argument.  That’s not a sane argument.

          Here’s an example.  In my field a huge problem is suicide by train.  The problem is, how do you stop it, as there are 10’s of thousands of miles of mainline tracks in the U.S., so how do you stop someone?

          In Palo Alto, they had a ‘suicide cluster’ a few years back, and they hired guards to watch the crossings.  The cost was very high for the city.  One person, who happened to be someone I knew, simply jumped a fence and jumped in front of a train between crossings that were being watched.

          One solution would be to place guard every 50′ along rail lines throughout the country.  That would cost several quadrillion dollars.  But it might save a life.

  3. Dave Hart

    It’s hard to come up with a catchy two or three line phrase for rallying support and demonstrating you’re angry:  “Reallocate police budget line items!”  “Convert police patrol funding to de-escalation training!”, even “Re-imagine the Police” etc., just doesn’t get it.  Defund is not abolish and those of us who understand the goals of BLM and other community organizations that were fighting police abuses didn’t need anyone to hold our hand and reassure us the unwashed hordes wouldn’t come and steal our underwear.

    1. Alan Miller

      The goal is to win, that means bringing on board those who aren’t involved or don’t understand.  Sticking with a bad slogan stinks of self-righteousness, which will set back the cause.  “Buy Hamburger Buns” may allow you to see the Oscar Meyer logo an ad, but “Buy Oscar Meyer Wieners, they are delicious!” will sell a lot more hot dogs.

      1. David Greenwald

        I think this is not a win or lose issue. It is an issue of finding better ways to do things. I do find it interesting that in your focus on semantics, you have lost site of a lot of important issues raised by this piece.

          1. David Greenwald

            I consider the name issue semantics. I looked over all your comments and not certain what question you asked.

        1. Bill Marshall

          I looked over all your comments and not certain what question you asked.

          May I offer some humble assistance…

          Alan posted,

          In police costs . . . but what is the cost of the program that allowed those savings?  i.e. net not gross, and,
          Why ask?  To get a full picture – and net savings, not just gross, which leaves out part of the picture. 

          Alan is correct in the asking, IMNSHO…

          My ‘back of the napkin’ answer… depends… if 3 officer positions went unfilled (only possible savings), and 3 MH therapists took their place, the therapists probably would have a salary ~ 70-80% of those officers, and a lower cost pension contribution by the City… again, I say, Alan M’s questions are VERY pertinent to the discussion.  IMNSHO.

      2. Dave Hart

        No, the goal is not “to win” which implies a zero sum game of some kind.  The goal is to get enough attention, from enough people with political power (white people) to implement structural change.  What does it take to get white people, especially, to care enough to demand change?  Linking arms, singing We Shall Overcome, candlelight vigils, blocking streets and submitting to arrest have not worked.  What does it take for white people to give a damn?  That is why black people, (when asked!), can support the presence of police officers in their community and at the same time support BLM.  We all (Black and white) want security from crime, but not at the cost of being murdered or hospitalized by the police. I know you feel that way yourself. The price POC are paying and it is too high and needs to end now.   Focus on the goal, Alan, not the price because the goal of not being dead or injured is worth every penny spent.

        1. Alan Miller

          No, the goal is not “to win” which implies a zero sum game of some kind.

          Twist of words.  My point is that your excusing a bad slogan which actually alienates those who could be convinced is a self-destructive tactic.  Better to admit it’s a poor slogan and come up with a new one that actually states the goal.

           The goal is to get enough attention, from enough people with political power (white people) to implement structural change.

          You are off into binary race land.  My new hero, John DeBarry, speaks of ‘people of conscience’ sitting down and working this stuff out.

          What does it take to get white people, especially, to care enough to demand change?

          Seems like lots of white people care, and are demanding change.  Maybe a lot of them don’t see your path as the solution.  Seems like you are demanding that people who can’t change, change.  That’s gonna be a long wait.  Better that ‘people of conscience’ work this stuff out, instead of demonizing each other by party, beliefs, or skin color.

          Linking arms, singing We Shall Overcome, candlelight vigils, blocking streets and submitting to arrest have not worked.

          I’ve been told on here that stuff works, that’s why it was OK to risk Covid-19 spread to protest.

          What does it take for white people to give a damn?

          Asked and answered, your honor.

          That is why black people, (when asked!), can support the presence of police officers in their community and at the same time support BLM.

          That can happen.

          We all (Black and white) want security from crime, but not at the cost of being murdered or hospitalized by the police.

          Agree as stated.

          I know you feel that way yourself.

          It is true that I don’t want to be murdered by the police.

          The price POC are paying and it is too high and needs to end now.

          That there needs to be structural changes, I agree.  What those are, maybe not so much.

          Focus on the goal, Alan, not the price

          This Alan focusing will not change the world, nor will your bickering with this Alan.

          As for the price, asking what a program costs, net, is a legitimate question.  Government spending voracious quantities of money on programs that have names that sound like something that is doing good, does nothing if there is not value for money.  To believe otherwise is the dishpan of fools, and this country is full of such dishpans.  Wasting money does no one any good, except those on the receiving end of the waste.

          because the goal of not being dead or injured is worth every penny spent.

          If spent efficiently and actually achieving the stated goal, not just checking the box and wasting the money.

  4. Bill Marshall

    What is missed in part, in this discussion, is time, place and manner… what is missing by equating MH issues in W Sac, Walnut Creek, is the nature and presentation of the MH issues… Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, etc.

    Had MH folk responded, instead of police, there would be additional costs for body bags, and coroner hours.

    I think (and what I believe Alan is alluding to, and he will correct me, as appropriate) we need to look at WHAT situations are MH folk deployed, instead of police [active shooters would not likely be one]… MH professionals would be first choice for the WC & W Sac situations (maybe on the latter)… and definitely the one in upstate NY… with PD ‘back-up’ at an appropriate distance for the situation…

    The concept of “you can’t put a price on a human life!  So spend whatever it takes!”  Really?  That is inane… if not insane… take life insurance… privately funded, and a value is placed on the life… and the premium (cost) is based on actuarial risk factors….

     

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