police officer
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
February 18, 2021 ·  5 min read

North American Cities Are Replacing Cops With Civilians And It’s Working

After the killing of George Floyd, police defunding and reformation became a vital discussion. People argue about how to improve the system and stop police misconduct and violence. However, one city seems to be ahead of the curve. Thirty years ago, Eugene, Oregon, began replacing cops with civilians trained to deal with mental health crises. These included cases involving homelessness, suicide attempts, and substance abuse. Keep in mind that police officers are not trained to deal with such cases, unlike these medics and mental health counselors. And in the hands of cops, these crises have turned violent in the past. 

The program, called CAHOOTS, has expanded during its three decades, and now it’s inspiring other cities in North America. 

Replacing Cops with Civilians for Mental Health Crises 

CAHOOTS has already succeeded in what police reform advocates encourage. As in, it gives certain police responsibilities to unarmed citizens. The organization stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets. It originated from White Bird Clinic, a social services center from the 60s. Twenty years later, it created CAHOOTS with the help of the Eugene Police Department. [1] 

Over the years, the White Bird found that many clients with mental health issues didn’t respond well to cops. “We’re wearing a uniform, a gun, a badge; it feels very demonstrative for someone in crisis,” Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner. Supportive of CAHOOTS, he considers the organization and the police department a “symbiotic relationship.”  

Replacing cops with civilians found incredible success in the community.

“We knew that we were good at it,” said David Zeiss, the program’s co-founder. “And we knew it was something of value to a lot of people… We needed to be known and used by other agencies that commonly encounter crisis situations.” [2] 

Here’s how it works. First, people contact CAHOOTS through Euguene’s 911 dispatchers. Then, the operators send violent or criminal cases to the police and the appropriate issues to CAHOOTS. Moreover, the responding team involves a person trained in behavioral health and a medic. CAHOOTS reportedly answered 24,000 calls in 2019. Incredibly, only 150 needed police backup. [3] 

“I believe it’s time for law enforcement to quit being a catch-base for everything our community and society needs,” Skinner said. “We need to get law enforcement professionals back to doing the core mission of protecting communities and enforcing the law; and then match resources with other services like behavioral health — all those things we tend to lump on the plate of law enforcement.” 

Inspiring Other Cities to Replace Cops with Civilians

In Toronto, Canada, during the summer of 2020, city-wide protests demanded defunding the police department. In response, a new program is scheduled to launch in 2025. It involves replacing cops with civilians to respond to mental health and homeless cases, similar to what’s done in Eugene.  

“The reason why we are arguing (for a non-police solution) is not necessarily a response to the ongoing conversation about police brutality,” said Asante Haughton, co-founder of Reach Out Response network, an organization that supports alternative policing options. Moreover, although one cannot separate the issue of police brutality, the focus is on ensuring people receive proper help. 

“Our primary concern is highlighting that a mental health emergency is not a crime. So we need people who are equipped with the tools to respond to mental health emergencies, which are not the police.” [4] 

The other co-founder of Reach Out Response, Rachel Bromberg, has aided cities in the U.S. to launch systems that similarly replace cops with civilians. For instance, the crises these teams respond to range from domestic violence, substance abuse, suicide prevention, homelessness to other poverty-related issues. Fortunately, the CAHOOTS framework has been instituted in places like Albuquerque, Denver, [5] Austin, and San Francisco. [6] 

“We need to change the way that people think about the role of police calls,” said Bromberg. Noteworthily, violence during CAHOOTS calls is extremely rare. “The perception that people have — that most of these calls are dangerous and violent or could go violent at any time — just is not borne out by the data.” 

Helping Marginalized Groups 

A similar team started in Olympia, Washington, to “remarkable” results, says coordinator Anne Larsen. Their program is the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) and works alongside the police department. Additionally, Larsen reported that the service especially benefited marginalized groups during the pandemic, which had closed essential services like transportation and shelters. 

The CRU works with a dispatch system similar to CAHOOTS. However, that’s only one way the team finds people to help. “Everything we do is within the community. We don’t sit in an office and wait for something to come to us,” Larsen said. “If you see someone having a bad day, you pull over and stop to check in on them. You don’t force the community to call 911 to respond to people in the community.” 

Hopefully, other cities will initiate similar programs that involve replacing cops with civilians. Historically, there’s a fraught relationship between police and marginalized communities. As a result, people avoid seeking help when they need it. For many people, “defund the police” means giving money to programs like CAHOOTS instead of police agencies. With enough hard work, these organizations could be part of the solution to the current policing system. 

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  1. “Where Calling the Police Isn’t the Only Option.” Bloomberg. Sarah Holder and Kara Harris. September 3, 2020 
  2. “This town of 170,000 replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers…” CNN. Scottie Andrew. July 6, 2020 
  3. “One City’s 30-Year Experiment With Reimagining Public Safety.” U.S. News. Trevor Bach. July 6, 2020 
  4. “North American Cities Are Replacing Cops With Civilians And It’s Working.” Vice. Jake Kivanç. February 10, 2021. 
  5. “Call police for a woman who is changing clothes in an alley? A new program in Denver sends mental health professionals instead.” Denver Post. Elise Schmelzer. September 7, 2020. 
  6. Cities Aim To Remove Police From Most Psychiatric, Substance Abuse Calls.” NPR. Eric Westervelt. October 15, 2020