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‘Why are we sending police?’: Madison explores alternative response to mental health-related calls


MADISON (WKOW) -- When an emergency call comes in for a person having a mental health crisis or another episode in their struggle with addiction, often times, police officers are the ones who respond.

Madison officials are seeking to change that through the launch of a pilot program in Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway's proposed 2021 budget.

It's a shift Rachel Kincade said is long overdue. Kincade was nominated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness to serve on Madison's new civilian police oversight board.

"I suffer from depression. I have all my life," Kincade said. "And there have been times I've had police contact when I've been in a crisis mode."

Kincade said she seen first-hand what it looks like when police officers escalate a situation while trying to gain compliance from someone in a crisis. She said in her later work, she would see similar instances of officers' actions further agitating a person instead of calming them down.

"I also have 17 years I worked with youth experiencing homelessness," Kincade said. "And I saw often times, the police escalating situations instead of de-escalating situations.:

In Eugene, Oregon, however, a different group of responders has taken such calls for more than 30 years. CAHOOTS is a branch of the White Bird Clinic. Using two-person crews, one medic and one mental health professional, emergency dispatchers send CAHOOTS crews to 911 calls involving a mental health crisis, substance abuse and homelessness, among other calls.

"When we enter into a situation under the auspices of trying to find stability and support for somebody rather than enforcement, the interaction happens in a much different way," said Tim Black, Director of Consulting at White Bird Clinic.

According to White Bird Clinic, CAHOOTS teams responded to about 24,000 calls last year; only 250 of them ended up requiring calls for police backup.

"There's not a crime being committed, nothing's on fire, no one's having a heart attack," Black said. "So why are we sending police?"

Madison already have a similar program in the Community Paramedics, which operates under the fire department. In Rhodes-Conway's proposed budget, the city would add another four community medics to the program, which would help launch the Crisis Intervention Team.

"The idea is, if a situation could be resolved by de-escalation, by connecting someone to services, or even an intervention right there on the scene by a trained crisis intervention worker or a community paramedic, that's what this service is designed to do," Rhodes-Conway said.

Rhodes-Conway did not have specifics about when the program would start or when the work would actually begin to put together the Crisis Intervention Team. She said the city will work closely with Dane County to utilize the $300,000 mental health triage center it is proposing in its 2021 budget.

"We will have a place, then, to send folks after the interact with this crisis intervention team," Rhodes-Conway said.

CAHOOTS operates on a $2.1 million annual budget. Rhodes-Conway said Madison will face tough budget decisions for the next few years, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, making it a challenge to build an infrastructure similar to what's in place in Eugene.

Response From Law Enforcement

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association is the state's largest police union; its president, Jim Palmer, said many officers do not like the idea of being primary responders to calls about a mental health crisis.

"Law enforcement has long bemoaned the fact that more has been asked of officers, especially in the area of mental health crises," Palmer said.

Still, Palmer said any efforts to build community response teams with funds taken out of police budgets -- a common call from protesters this summer -- would not yield the results activists think they would.

"As this is discussed in the kind of, 'defund the police' kind of effort, no one seems to have much in the way of a plan in terms of how that would that work," Palmer said. "It almost seems to pre-suppose there are mental health workers and social workers, cadres of them, waiting in the wings to respond on a 24/7 basis and that's not the case."

Black said CAHOOTS' funding does not come at the expense of police budgets. Instead, he said the community response program is viewed as another arm of the overall public safety response.

"It has always been 'in addition to' and any sort of transformation a community chooses to undertake isn't going to happen overnight," Black said. "So, we can't just say this dollar we're pulling from the police department is going to be a dollar spent on mental health response. It's just not that simple."

Kincade said she believed police departments themselves should restructure in a manner that emphasizes community patrol officers who are on a first-name basis with residents who struggle with mental illness and often the source of calls for service. She said any new programs are only as good as the public's trust in its responders, and that includes police.

"It's gonna take some time for that trust to be rebuilt but it needs to be rebuilt," she said. "And the police need to be seen as people who are there to protect and serve and not people you're to be afraid of."