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Social workers could bolster emergency services

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In 2019, more than one in seven calls received by the Shaker Heights Police Department were related to mental health — over 5,000 mental health calls in total. Shaker Heights Police Chief Jeff DeMuth expects this number was even higher in 2020 due to increased stress and depression caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To deal with this growing problem in their community, Shaker Heights is trying out a new pilot program — embedding licensed social workers in its police and fire departments. These social workers will ride along with emergency response teams during mental health calls and will follow up with people who are engaged when they are off duty.

The logic of programs like these are clear. Police are trained to investigate violent crime and property crime. They are not trained to provide people with support during mental health and addiction crises like social workers are. By plugging more people into social programs, people can not only find help with the problems they are dealing with but could also lessen the load on police, freeing up resources to focus on matters they are better equipped to focus on.

This is a lighter-touch version of a program that has been in place in Eugene, Oregon since the early 90s. Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) is a program that staffs a team of social workers and EMTs to respond to mental health crises before police get on the scene.

The Oregon program is active. In 2019, CAHOOTS handled nearly 19,000 calls for service. It has been on the rise, too: CAHOOTS reports it took double the number of calls in 2019 that it did in 2014. Programs like this can have a double benefit: one of providing people on the scene with support that social workers are trained and outfitted to provide and a second of saving money for the city by diverting calls from police.

Most of the calls the CAHOOTS program responds to center on behavioral health issues. According to official releases by the clinic that administers the program, 19% of calls CAHOOTS responds to are for people with severe and persistent mental illness, 15% are for counseling, and another 15% are for anxiety. Other major categories they respond to are alcohol-related calls, medical calls, and issues with shelter.

These have led to savings for the police department. CAHOOTS reports it saved the City of Eugene’s police department $5.7 million in diverted calls in 2014. That number ballooned to $12 million by 2017.

CAHOOTS also helps with transportation, transporting people to medical services, substance abuse treatment, shelter, and social services. They estimate these services saved $14 million for the emergency medical system, including ambulance transportation and emergency room services.

The state of Ohio could benefit from programs such as this. This pilot should be watched by the state and if it is successful should be a candidate for funding other programs throughout the state. This is a good way to go about piloting a program like this. Maybe we can find a way to improve community policing in Shaker Heights.


Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a public policy analysis firm based in Columbus. Moore has worked as an analyst in the public and nonprofit sectors and has analyzed diverse issue areas such as economic development, environment, education, and public health. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Denison University.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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