Harry and Oprah back alternative to police for mental health crisis response in new Apple TV show

Prince Harry pushed an alternative to policing in his new Apple TV show as he praised a tax-payer funded Oregon group that responds to mental health call-outs with ‘care’ rather than armed cops. 

It comes amid fervent debate in the US over calls for cuts to police budgets following waves of protests against police brutality. 

Supporters of the so-called ‘defund the police’ movement claim officers are not trained to do much of the work they are required to perform and the money could be better spent funding specialised services.

Detractors argue that many departments are already underfunded and budget cuts lead to more violence and danger to the public.

CAHOOTS has been running in the city of Eugene for 31 years and is funded through the police budget.   

According to the group’s website, the budget for the program is around $2.1million annually and the combined annual budgets for the Eugene and Springfield police departments are $90million.

It said that in 2017, the CAHOOTS teams answered 17 per cent of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume. The program saves the city an estimated $8.5million in public safety spending annually, according to the White Bird Clinic, which runs the program.

The city of Eugene’s website states that ‘over the last several years’ the City has increased funding to the program ‘to add more hours of service’. 

Prince Harry (left) and Oprah Winfrey (right) have backed a Eugene, Oregon group responding to mental health call-outs with ‘care’ in the place of armed cops, discussing the CAHOOT program with Dr Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General of California (center), on their Apple TV show

CAHOOTS has been running in the city of Eugene for 31 years and is funded through the police budget

CAHOOTS has been running in the city of Eugene for 31 years and is funded through the police budget

In the latest episode of their new Apple TV show The Me You Don’t See, in which Harry, Oprah Winfrey and others discuss their mental health struggles, the host and former royal highlighted CAHOOTS. 

‘Wow, I love that, I think CAHOOTS is great… it’s so powerful,’ Harry said, following a short clip showing the work of the program which engages with those suffering mental health crises, substance abuse issues and homelessness. 

Oprah introduced the clip by saying ‘a lot of cities’ could learn from the CAHOOTS approach. 

‘For some cities in the United States it seems that mental health in the homeless population is already at a humanitarian crisis and we’ve seen a growing demand to move armed police away from handling mental health crises,’ she said. 

A member of CAHOOTS – which stands for crisis assistance helping out on the streets – explained in the short film how the group’s responders differ from that of police.

‘Law enforcement should have no part in responding to someone that’s having a bad day. Police don’t want to be mental health workers,’ he said. 

‘Our teams are unarmed, we’re not showing up in police uniforms. We don’t carry pepper spray, we don’t carry a taser. We don’t have those means of escalation with us and so we’re forced to really rely on our people skills.’ 

Each team is made up of a mental health worker and an EMT, with 911 dispatchers assessing whether callers not reporting a crime or violence could benefit from CAHOOTS’ assistance.  

In 2019, teams responded to 24,000 calls and required police back-up on 150 occasions, it said. 

Oprah introduced a clip showing the group's work by saying 'a lot of cities' could learn from the CAHOOTS approach

Oprah introduced a clip showing the group’s work by saying ‘a lot of cities’ could learn from the CAHOOTS approach

Dr Harris said she believed CAHOOTS was 'a better use of our public dollars' when it came to responding to mental health crises

Dr Harris said she believed CAHOOTS was ‘a better use of our public dollars’ when it came to responding to mental health crises

‘We operate as a sector for public safety and respond to all sorts of crises, could be medical, could be substance abuse, could be mental health,’ one CAHOOTS worker said in the Apple TV show.

‘The idea is that there is an alternative for people besides police and fire and we’re going to treat these situations with empathy instead of judgement and anger and frustration,’ another explained. 

There has been growing interest in CAHOOTS’ approach as police forces across the US and elsewhere have been accused of heavy-handed responses to mental health emergencies.

The program and its supporters say it not only reduces confrontations but also saves money and frees up police officers to concentrate on law enforcement. 

Last year, Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner described the force’s relationship with CAHOOTS as ‘symbiotic’.

‘When they show up, they have better success than police officers do. We’re wearing a uniform, a gun, a badge – it feels very demonstrative for someone in crisis,’ he told CNN

‘We try to reach out to people and let them know there still is a community that wants to help. That’s our direct touch on people that have bad days,’ one CAHOOTS worker said, adding that he believed there was ‘a need across the country’ for an alternative to police in responding to mental health crises.  

Following the clip, Oprah asked guest Dr Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General of California, what she thought of the program. 

‘I think it is an incredibly important model, the idea of people who are in crisis being responded to with care as opposed to with law enforcement.

‘I think it’s a better use of our public dollars, our public resources, and there’s actually policy momentum to move this forward throughout the country,’ she said.

Dr Harris pointed to the CAHOOTS Act, a bill currently before Congress that would allow states to adopt mobile crisis response teams that can be dispatched ‘when a person is experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder (SUD) crisis instead of immediately involving law enforcement,’ according to a press release.

Funding would be provided through an enhanced federal match rate for state Medicaid programs, it said. 

Arguments against police response to mental health crises usually center around expertise, as officers are trained in the use of force if they feel the public or themselves might be in danger.

Mental health advocates say this is not the ideal attitude when encountering someone suffering a crisis who may be behaving erratically or aggressively.

In some cases, the results can be fatal, with one analysis of police shootings in 2015/16 suggesting that a quarter of those killed had exhibited signs of mental illness. In other instances, someone in need of medical treatment might end up in a cell. 

‘We can recognise that a person walking down the street, naked, screaming ‘I’m going to kill everyone’ – but he doesn’t have any weapons – that’s probably some sort of mental health or substance abuse call,’ one of the CAHOOTS workers said in the Apple TV show.   

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