Can Social Workers Replace Cops? One Experiment, From All Angles

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photo courtesy CAHOOTS/White Bird clinic

For the past three decades, the city of Eugene, Ore., has conducted a long-running experiment in replacing police officers with social workers to handle mental-health crises and other quality-of-life calls to 911.

The program, Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets ( CAHOOTS) has hardly been a secret.

Long before this year’s protests over police mishandling of such calls, and demands to “defund” police by shifting some responsibilities to other service providers, CAHOOTS often attracted attention from national and regional news media.

Lately, though, there’s been a flood of coverage of the program’s work, along with stories about copycats springing up around the country (such as Denver, Indianapolis and Chicago), debates in multiple cities about whether to join the trend, and dissections of the various policy alternatives to be considered.

In my role as the criminal justice “solutions specialist” at Solutions Journalism Network, where I archive and spotlight news stories on crime-reduction solutions with evidence of effectiveness, I sifted through the CAHOOTS cornucopia to curate a new collection of some of the most thorough, thoughtful stories.

While these stories cover common ground in summarizing CAHOOTS’ track record – saving its city money on police while lessening the danger of violent confrontations and unnecessary arrests and incarceration, and while getting needed services for troubled people – each of the seven stories in this collection approaches the key questions from a different point of view:

As several of the stories make clear, calls to 911 for mental health crises and problems related to homelessness, substance abuse and petty interpersonal disputes consume huge amounts of policing resources and often lead to violence and repetitive cycles of 911 calls because underlying problems don’t get solved.

Whether by making teams of unarmed social workers and medics the first responders on such calls, teaming them with police, or giving police more extensive training, these experiments around the country are showing ways to approach these questions in safe and effective ways.

mark obbie

Mark Obbie

This collection joins a number of others my colleagues and I have compiled on such criminal justice topics as use-of-force policies, bail reform, police-community relations, community-violence prevention, and violence interrupters.

All of the stories in these collections are among the more than 10,000 solutions stories archived in our Solutions Story Tracker as part of our nonprofit’s effort to promote better reporting on effective solutions to complicated social problems.

Editor’s Note: The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report, has collaborated with the Solutions Journalism Network on several projects.

See also:

Looking for Innovative Policing Solutions? You Can Find Them Here, The Crime Report, August 6, 2020

What Works to Prevent Gun Violence? A Journalism ‘Solutions’ Archive, The Crime Report, August 20, 2020

Mark Obbie is a contributing editor at The Crime Report, a freelance criminal justice journalist, and the criminal justice solutions specialist at Solutions Journalism Network. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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