Defund police or reform? What a city in Oregon can teach Michigan

In Oregon, mobile crisis team member Chelsea Swift responds to calls that formerly went to police: “So much of our training is around body language and how we carry and position ourselves.” (Courtesy photo)

Long before the term “defund the police” became a progressive slogan, a city in Oregon found ways to divert police from thousands of calls that other professionals are better equipped to handle.


This could involve anything from a delusional man bothering restaurant customers, a woman passed out on the street, or an adolescent threatening suicide. In the college town of Eugene, Oregon, as elsewhere, a substantial portion of routine police calls involve the homeless and mentally ill.

In Eugene, instead of police, such calls often bring a white van with a team of two: a nurse or EMT and a first responder trained in behavioral health. In a program started three decades ago, these teams fielded nearly 25,000 calls in Eugene and the neighboring city of Springfield in 2019. That’s almost a fifth of the Eugene Police Department’s total call volume of about 172,000 people.

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Criminal justice and mental health reform advocates say there’s no program quite like it in Michigan, but it’s high time alternate approaches — which take potentially volatile encounters involving the mentally ill off the plate of police officers — are given a closer look.

“Are there other ways you can provide services without the police department involved?” asked Andrea Cole, CEO of the Detroit-based Ethel & James Flinn Foundation, which advocates for and funds mental health reform initiatives in southeast Michigan. (The Flinn Foundation also provides funding to Bridge Michigan for independent reporting on mental health issues.)

“I need to be clear,” she said. “Defund police to me does not mean we don’t have police. It means we really use police when it’s appropriate.”

Demands to “defund the police” grew in volume in cities across the country in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died as a white officer sat with a knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest in Minneapolis.

But that cry means different things to different constituencies.

To some activists protesting a series of African-American deaths at the hands of police, it means slashing police budgets, dismantling departments and starting anew with a fresh law enforcement template. Some protesting police violence in Detroit even said they envisioned a “world without police,” with money instead going to deeper investment in schools and good-paying jobs.

But thus far, even the Minneapolis City Council has yet to take that step despite initial vows to replace its police department with a department of community safety driven by  “holistic” law enforcement principles.

Instead of literally defunding police budgets, many reformers say, it makes more sense to reframe and narrow what communities are asking police to do.

Should police really be handling nonviolent incidents involving people who are mentally ill when there’s no serious crime or threat to the public? As Bridge Michigan has reported, some agencies are finding alternative ways to deal with such incidents in ways that don’t involve the criminal justice system. That allows police to focus more heavily on core threats to public safety such as home invasions, physical assaults, highway emergencies or shootings. 

“Right now the police have this burden to protect us from crime, but also to help the homeless, to help families get over fights, to help kids with their homework ─ the list is endless,” said Robert Sheehan, CEO of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, which represents the state’s 46 community mental health agencies.

“We should send police to where they are best trained,”  says Robert Sheehan, CEO of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan.

(Courtesy photo)

“We should send police to where they are best trained. That’s where the value is.”

More than 2 million people with mental illness are sent to jail each year and nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jail have serious mental illness. About 10 times as many people with serious mental illness are in jail or prison as in psychiatric hospitals.

Moreover, according to one study, individuals with untreated severe mental illness are involved in at least 1 in 4 fatal shootings by police. At the same time, it’s worth noting that even when police do everything right in getting help for troubled suspects, that’s no guarantee against future tragedy, as was apparently the case recently in Detroit

Still, Sheehan said he sees progress in places like Michigan, which has begun to include mental-health workers in police response to some incidents. He pointed to dozens of communities across the state that are tapping into mobile crisis response teams to deal with mental health crisis episodes, which can defuse incidents before they escalate to where police are called and someone goes to jail.

In Detroit, police officers in five precincts cruise the streets with a mental health professional, often a social worker, a program that got its start in 2004. In 2019, according to Andrea Smith of the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, the nonprofit mental health agency that funds the partnership, these teams responded to about 1,500 calls in 2019.

While that’s a tiny fraction of the 911 calls the department gets a year, Detroit Police Capt. Jevon Johnson said he is convinced of its value. 

“Just getting to know how to deal with people with mental illness and substance abuse ─ you get to see the social worker deal with that first, and that’s invaluable,” said Johnson, who knows the program as a supervisor and, years earlier, as an officer. 

Johnson said officers learn from mental health professionals and they in turn get to better understand the law enforcement side of these calls.

Smith, of the Detroit mental-health agency, said the agency would like to expand the program to more city police precincts, if they can secure more funding.

“We’re trying to figure out how to expand it and make it a citywide thing,” she said.

In Oakland County, a youth mobile crisis team responds to mental health calls for youth and young adults up to age 21. On a given day, calls could come from a home, school, hospital emergency room or a public park.

“The team could be deployed if there’s a kid bouncing off the walls at school, breaking desks and throwing chairs. They intervene with the child so no ambulance is called, the police are not called and there’s no emergency room visit,” said Kevin Sendi, president and CEO of New Oakland Family Centers, the nonprofit mental health organization that staffs the mobile team with funding from the county’s mental agency, Oakland Community Health Network. Sendi said its teams responded to 284 mental health calls in 2019.

The mobile crisis team launched in 2018, following a mandate from Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services to community mental health agencies to provide that service.

Sendi said quick intervention can not only circumvent a police call, but is more likely to result in appropriate treatment options beyond psychiatric hospitalization or a trip to the ER.

“Those options could be a crisis residential home, not a lockdown facility, a partial hospitalization, which is a six-hour stay or intensive outpatient treatment,” he said.

But Sheehan of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan said there remain limits to what these mobile crisis units can do. He said cash-strapped community mental health (CMH) agencies still must find money to sustain these mobile teams.

“The state mandate came without funding,” he said. “The state said to the CMH, you must do that, presumably by redeploying current dollars.” 

In Eugene, a city of 172,000 that is home to the University of Oregon, the police reform initiative traces its roots to a group of self-described hippies, social workers and community activists who founded a nonprofit community medical and mental health clinic called the White Bird Clinic in 1969.

Two decades later, the clinic forged an unlikely alliance with the Eugene Police Department to seek alternative ways to deal with people that mental-health experts say need treatment rather than confrontation.

Called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), it’s been more fruitful than either side could have predicted at its launch in 1989 with a single battered van and skeleton staff.

The CAHOOTS budget is about $2 million a year, of which the Eugene Police Department funds about $1 million. That’s just over 1 percent of the $90 million total budgets for the Eugene and Springfield departments.

Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner said the department’s partnership with a mobile crisis team fills “a unique need” for response to mental health crises. (Courtesy photo)

Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner said it is a sound investment.

“CAHOOTS is a good example of a system that needs to be in place to fill that unique need. The demand for lower-acuity behavioral health response that has some component of EMS ─ some individuals also have co-occurring medical conditions ─ they fill that gap and need.”

Skinner said the department relies on skilled 911 call takers to make the decision whether to send CAHOOTS or police to a scene and relay that to a dispatcher.

“They are asking questions about what is the right resource to send,” Skinner said.

More often than not, they’re right. In 2019, CAHOOTS teams arriving on scene had to call for police backup 250 times out of more than 24,000 calls, or roughly 1 percent of the time. Teams also respond to calls to a non-emergency number.

At White Bird Clinic, mobile crisis team member Chelsea Swift has been riding white CAHOOTS vans for more than three years. 

Logging 12-hour shifts through Eugene and Springfield, Swift is trained as EMT and crisis counselor. Like the rest of the team, she’s typically dressed in work boots, jeans and a CAHOOTS T-shirt — intended to send a non-threatening message: We’re not the police.

The team carries no weapons. It has no authority to make arrests.

Like the rest of the response team, Swift underwent at least 500 hours of training, which includes classroom instruction on mental health, principles of de-escalation and months of real-world lessons as a probationary team member on the van.

“So much of our training is around body language and how we carry and position ourselves. We want to be on the side of the client and not right in front of them,” Swift told Bridge.

Swift estimates that half the calls send vans to Eugene’s homeless district and “99 percent” involve some form of mental illness.

“But every type of call I get [for the homeless] I do inside of homes in the neighborhoods. With shelter-in-place and the pandemic, we have seen an increase in suicidal ideation. Telehealth is not working for them.

“We have families that are sick of each other and domestic violence situations that are becoming more intense.”

While CAHOOTS handles some calls that went to police in the past, Swift said that police occasionally call them to a scene police already are at to add their expertise to a mental health crisis.

“Every time we show up, they say thank you so much,” she said.

To be sure, Michigan police are moving toward this more integrated approach to handling 911 calls. 

The Battle Creek Police Department began training officers in 2016 in Crisis Intervention Team policing, to divert mentally ill individuals to treatment instead of jail. It’s a strategy that’s worked well in places like Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which has steered thousands of mentally offenders into treatment while cutting the county’s jail population from 7,000 prisoners a decade ago to just over 4,000 in 2018.

According to Battle Creek Police Chief Jim Blocker, there were 835 CIT reports in June for Calhoun County. Of those, officers used force 51 times. Out of 142 cases where individuals could have been arrested, just nine were taken to jail, according to police records.

“We get about 75,000 calls a year and I would say 15 percent to 20 percent are specific to mental illness or a traumatic moment that has nothing to do with a crime or the criminal justice system,” he said.

Blocker said his officers would be glad to give up some that load, if there’s a better way to handle it.

“Police are not trained social workers. They are not trained mental health professionals. And mental health professionals are not going to respond to a violent crime.”

But he rejects the notion that communities can somehow function without a police force.

“The word defund is an extreme and unrealistic approach. It’s a house of cards that will fall apart. The premise is that the root of violence starts with police, and that’s naïve.”

Blocker would get no argument on that point from David Zeiss, the CAHOOTS co-founder.

"Partnership with police has always been essential to our model," he told CNN.

"A CAHOOTS-like program without a close relationship with police would be very different from anything we've done. I don't have a coherent vision of a society that has no police force."

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Just the facts
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 7:59am

Why aren't there any stories about the Michigan senate race? John James is now blaming Gary Peters for the poor federal coronavirus response!!!! Please expose John James for the ignorant Trump-loving (2,000%) clown that he is. Gary Peters is in the minority party of the senate controlled by Moscow Mitch, a corrupt republican. Donald Trump is the president in charge of the federal government. The democratic controlled house has passed hundreds of bipartisan bills that have been killed in the senate by Moscow Mitch.

Mary Sue
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 8:25am

In what world does a news source glorify this tattoed, pierced hippie in this picture over a police officer who is trained and sworn to uphold the law and even sacrifice his life for the citizen if necessary?
Bridge, this is shameful, you need to take this article down. We are not a violent, poorly run west coast city and we never will be. The ideas in this article are beyond insanity. You propose fixing problems caused by a tiny percentage of problematic police officers by having their duties be performed by drugged up, tattoed children?
This is appalling. Please, take this article down. You speak for no one in this state except for a few deranged ingrates when you say these things.

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 3:44pm

That "tiny percentage of problematic police officers" are involved in 1 in 4 fatal shootings of individuals with untreated severe mental illness, per the article you are commenting on. What is shameful is people like you who turn a blind eye to the systemic problems of policing and instead defend police officers as victims or as only a "few bad apples" when we see excessive force used time and time again. What is shameful is police using chemical weapons on their own citizens. What is shameful is the militarization of our police. The police couldn't even stop using excessive force at the protests against the use of excessive force.

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 6:55pm

What in the world are you talking about?
There are nearly a million police officers in the USA.
There are approximaltely 1,000 police shootings every year, and a vast majority of those are demonstrated to be totally justified from video evidence. In case you can't do math, that's (1,000 / 1,000,000) * 100 = 0.1 percent, ZERO POINT ONE PERCENT of police officers are involved in shootings every year.
Even if a vast majority of these shootings weren't justified, which they are, what demended state of mind do you have to be in to think that all police officers are responsible for the actions of 0.1 percent of their peers? In that same world, would you agree that all black people are responsible for 0.1% of THEIR peers?
I'll tell you what's wrong here - You're a hateful, irrational person who has no respect for law and order, just like the people who ge t themselves shot by police every year.

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 8:02pm

Mary Sue,

{{{In what world does a news source glorify this tattoed, pierced hippie in this picture over a police officer who is trained and sworn to uphold the law and even sacrifice his life for the citizen if necessary?}}}

Way to judge a book by it's cover. Did you not read the article? That "glorified, tattooed, pierced hippy" is trained in either EMT or behavioral health. What are your qualifications? Can I come see you if I have health problems like I should be able to see any conservative that posts to the boards on I am waiting for all of you to live up to the standards that you think you meet, and experts don't.

I won't hold my breath.

Wed, 08/12/2020 - 10:14pm

You totally missed the point of her post... As usual. Do you just read the cover of a book and then move on to the next one? Because that's what you seem to do with everyone's posts.

middle of the mit
Sun, 08/16/2020 - 10:45pm

NOn factoid, I am looking at her picture as I make this post. Are you saying Bridge is misrepresenting it's journalism?

And if what you are proposing is that a tiny percentage of officers are doing the bad things, I am going to give you what you gave teachers. THEY ARE ALL BAD! None of them should get the support of the Teachers or UAW or any other union!

Why? Because the Police officers union shouldn't get ANY help from ANY union officials AT ALL! Why? You shouldn't get support from those you not only beat down but refused to support!

Factioid? If you want to come after me?

You better prepare, and Bridge had better not hamper me.

Mike Jones
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 8:43am

Sorry, but we don't want commie brown shirts patrolling our streets - The supposed "mentally ill" involved in police shootings get exactly what they deserve - And we need more of it. We have a stand your ground law in this state and we need citizens to exercise their right to self defense more often - THAT is the solution.
Defund the police and replace them with this useless child in your picture? No way - We'll have none of that. What a bunch of Pre-WWII Germany BS. No one with a functioning brain supports what you are proposing in this article.

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 5:18pm


Sorry, but your revisionist history misses the mark.

. Its primary purposes were providing protection for Nazi rallies and assemblies, disrupting the meetings of opposing parties, fighting against the paramilitary units of the opposing parties, especially the Red Front Fighters League (Rotfrontkämpferbund) of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and intimidating Romani, trade unionists, and, especially, Jews – for instance, during the 1933 Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses.

Many of these stormtroopers believed in the socialist promise of National Socialism. They expected the Nazi regime to take more radical economic action, such as breaking up the vast landed estates of the aristocracy, once they obtained national power.[19] By the time Hitler assumed power in January 1933, SA membership had increased to approximately 2,000,000—twenty times as large as the number of troops and officers in the Reichswehr (German Army).[20]

After Adolf Hitler ordered the "blood purge" of 1934, he withdrew support from the SA. This event became known as the Night of the Long Knives (die Nacht der langen Messer). The SA continued to exist, but was effectively superseded by the SS, although the paramilitary forces were not formally dissolved until after Nazi Germany's final capitulation to the Allies in 1945.

Some have argued that since most SA members came from working-class families or were unemployed, they were more amenable to Marxist-leaning socialism, expecting Hitler to fulfill the 25-point National Socialist Program.[55] However, historian Thomas Friedrich reports that the repeated efforts by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) to appeal to the working-class backgrounds of the SA were "doomed to failure", because most SA men were focused on the cult of Hitler and destroying the "Marxist enemy".[56]

He was a national conservative and initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler,[3] but he became one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches

"I really believed, given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler's assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.

I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me."

Martin Niemöller's powerful quote: "First they came for..

But thanks for telling us how much you value all life.

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 9:23am

Your title should read what Michigan can teach Oregon. Chief James Craig was on Neil Cavuto’s show yesterday talking about the differences between Detroit and cities where they have lawless rioters (I’m sorry, peaceful protestors). Chief Craig has pit a ton of effort in forging relationships between the police and the mayor, the police and the City Council, and the police and the residents, and those relationships have led to most everyone being on the same page. Chief Craig is also very pro-active in following social media to make sure the truth gets out and is not embellished as it was in a recent riot where social media was calling for riots because an unarmed black kid was murdered when that wasn’t totally truthful. A recent Detroit shooting proves that Chief Craig is on the right track when a crowd formed after a police shooting but when the police spoke, the crowd mostly stood down, and there were no riots or lawlessness. As the Chief said, you don’t develop relationships overnight, and it takes constant and continuous effort to keep those relationships.

I’d much rather have a person like Chief Craig in charge than rely on an unarmed yet trained social worker going to confront some domestic disturbance which can flare up as deadly in an instant.

GOP Hypocrisy
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 11:16am

Michigan lawmakers make $71,685 a year for what is essentially part-time work. Shouldn't we be talking about defunding the legislature, ie, only pay them a prorated salary based on attendance??? I mean, why are they not in session??? Can't they meet online??? Are children supposed to meet in person at school, but the legislature can't meet in person??? Why do we tolerate this thievery of our tax dollars? Unlimited taxpayer paid vacation? Sounds swampy.

Enough already!
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 7:00pm

Are they still on vacation? Bums!

Todd Priest
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 3:45pm

I sincerely hope that awful stuff happens to liberals if this occurs. Whitmer especially. If you support the chaos, please be sure to NOT call police when they come to your home to pull you from it and beat you. Yes, this IS going on but your liberal cable news channels won't tell you.

Tue, 08/11/2020 - 7:01pm

Tell us how you feel about Russia, Putin, bounties on our troops, and Putin tampering with our elections.

Just Facts
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 8:03pm

The Russian Collusion stuff has been proven to be patently false and every claim against Trump and his associates has been thoroughly debunked - You might want to check your facebook feed for the latest narrative.

middle of the mit
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 8:11pm

Defunding. Something conservatives came up with to further promote Grover Nordquists "drown the Gub in a tub club".

Do conservatives complain when defunding the Postal Office during a pandemic? NO! They go for it! Do they complain about defunding unions? NO! They push right to work for every union EXCEPT for the Police union..........and that union doesn't care about any other union.....otherwise they would've stood up for those unions.

Do conservatives care when they defund the Secretary of State? How do you think Benghazi happened?

This IS the conservative IDEOLOGY. No ifs. NO ands. It just IS! They defund Government so that you have to look to the wealthy for your sanctum.

They don't care about you, and there is no sanctum.

Deal with it.

Just Facts
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 8:05pm

There are so many inconsistencies and errors in your post that I would have to make a post twice it's size just to try and set you straight... However based on the other fiction novels you post on this site, I don't think it would matter - You'll still be off in the weeds somewhere. Good luck buddy. You sound really emotional and I don't think you yourself even understand what you're upset about. Stay safe ;)

middle of the mit
Sun, 08/16/2020 - 11:01pm

just can't deal with the facts,

I would LOVE for you to post what would be twice the size of your one paragraph statement providing me and everyone else proof of what you say is true. I don't think Bridge would mind at all. Let us test that theory, shall we?

How did I go into the weeds? Isn't Grover Nordquist the guy who wants to drown the gub in a tub? You might regret ever having retorted this comment.

Grover Norquist Drowned His PPP Money In The Bathtub, We Bet! Sure why not:. The Americans for Tax Reform Foundation, a conservative-allied group headed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, took Covid-19 small business relief funds from the federal government, according to data released Monday.

Are you sure you want me to keep going?