Can CAHOOTS Blaze a Path to Police Reform?

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CAHOOTS van in Eugene, Ore. Photo via KVAL TV

Last June, as protests over George Floyd’s killing swept the nation, two main types of stories crossed my desk at Solutions Journalism Network (SJN): evaluating various types of police reforms, and telling the tale of one policing alternative in particular, called CAHOOTS.

SJN is a nonprofit journalism-support organization that encourages journalists to write about responses to social problems, not just about the problems themselves. As SJN’s criminal justice specialist, I evaluate whether stories meet our criteria to be added to our archive, the Solutions Story Tracker.

Chief among those criteria: It’s a story about an existing initiative, not just a policy proposal.

When the protests turned into calls to “defund the police,” there were precious few existing programs to report on. That is what led many reporters to Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS, a rare example of an existing program that replaces police with other kinds of professionals on certain kinds of calls.

CAHOOTS has been around since the 1980s. The name – an acronym for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets – is a sly reference to its origins as a counterculture health clinic’s decision to partner with the Eugene Police Department (“in cahoots” with the cops) to spare the police of an unwanted task that often leads to unnecessary conflict or incarceration.

CAHOOTS’ teams of a medic and counselor respond to 911 calls for mental health crises and similar non-criminal, non-violent problems on the streets, rarely requiring police backup and saving the city money.

The stream of news stories on CAHOOTS and copycats that began popping up around the U.S. turned into a wave. Only select few make it into our archive. But, as the stories continued to fill my Twitter feed and come in over the transom, we started asking ourselves how exactly such news travels.

Did the reporting feed on itself, with one story inspiring others? Or did the early stories, or some other information source, spark interest among policymakers and activists who then proposed programs at the local level that drew coverage?

We surveyed the dozens of reporters who had stories in our archive as of the first anniversary of Floyd’s death. The result is this new report, at SJN’s Whole Story blog, detailing what we did and didn’t learn about the spread of CAHOOTS stories. The upshot:

    • The Wall Street Journal first brought national attention to CAHOOTS more than a year before the 2020 protests, when an enterprising reporter looking into a controversial death in police custody asked: Is there an alternative to this?
    • Few reporters we surveyed could remember specifically where they first heard of CAHOOTS (as one reporter told me, “it’s just one of those things that’s always been in the air”). A few gave us anecdotes about how their curiosity was piqued or furthered by existing coverage, serving as a trail of breadcrumbs always leading to Eugene.
    • Contrary to my fears at the outset of this trend, the stories weren’t all alike – far from it. Reporters compared their own cities to Eugene in questioning how the model would translate under different conditions. They looked at the wide variety of models doing similar work, from police-based crisis intervention team training to co-responder teams of police and social workers. In many stories, the Eugene police weighed in to make their point: that CAHOOTS was no defund-the-police insult; that in fact, they appreciate the partnership and how it lets police police and social workers do their thing.

As of this writing, there are 51 stories in our archive that make substantive mention of CAHOOTS. They are a subset of stories tagged under “crisis intervention.” And some of the best, at least fairly early on in the CAHOOTS craze, ended up in this collection that I curated.

mark obbie

Mark Obbie

Now that CAHOOTS’ progeny have begun to fledge, reporters from Denver to Portland to New York, among many other places, are telling stories about those pilot projects when they show measurable results or run into trouble.

We’re archiving those as well, as the leading defund-the-police experiment rolls on.

This article originally appeared in Crime and Justice News. Mark Obbie is a contributing editor of The Crime Report.

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