By Erica C. Barnett
More than three years after city council members first started calling for a civilian response to behavioral health emergencies, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced Wednesday that a new six-member dual-dispatch team is ready to deploy in the “DAP zone”—the stretch of downtown between SoDo and the Denny Triangle that is the focus of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s business-focused Downtown Activation Plan. “Often, we don’t need a gun and badge; we need people trained and skilled at the kind of outreach and kind of treatment that we want to see,” Harrell said at the announcement at City Hall on Wednesday.
The team will be housed in the city’s recently rebranded 911 call center, now known as the Community Assisted Response and Engagement Department. (Not to be confused with the recently rebranded encampment response team, now known as the Unified Care Team.)
The team of behavioral health specialists will only respond to low-priority calls—those that require a “prompt” response but aren’t “urgent,” according to the city’s call priority system—that may be appropriate for a behavioral health response.
Unlike in other cities, like Eugene, Oregon (whose CAHOOTS civilian-response program does not include cops), police will accompany the CARE team on every call, “clearing the scene” and determining it’s safe for unarmed responders to approach, department chief Amy Smith said Wednesday. Smith said she, not the police or fire department, insisted on this model, because “in the little area where we are [operating], the threat of violence is much higher than it might otherwise be and in years gone by.” If it turns out police aren’t necessary, Smith added, “we will articulate new policy and protocols.”
Working between 11am and 11pm, teams of two, will drive to the site of Priority 3 “person down” calls—for example, a person who is passed out at a bus stop—and calls for Priority 3 welfare checks, a catchall term for when “it looks like somebody’s not doing well,” Smith said.
Currently, there are relatively few such calls in the nine police beats that include at least part of the Downtown Activation Plan area. In 2023 so far, according to city 911 call data, there have been a total of 88 Priority 3 “down person” calls and 565 Priority 3 welfare check calls in the pilot area; last year, those numbers were 27 and 488, respectively.
Smith told us the relatively low number could be due to 911 dispatchers deliberately “upcoding” calls—giving calls a higher priority than they might ordinarily receive—”to make sure that somebody does go out.” Adding Priority 2 calls to the mix—a category that includes “altercations or situations which could escalate if assistance does not arrive soon”—only boosts the 2023 numbers to 663 and 862 in the DAP zone, for person down and welfare-check calls, respectively (compared to 595 and 985 in those categories for 2022).
While 130 or so calls a month could be plenty to keep a six-person team busy as they get up and running, it seems likely that the team will need to expand to more areas of the city outside downtown—or more urgent, higher-priority call types—to make a meaningful dent in the number of calls that don’t really require police.
“I know that that’s not enough area, but I’m very defensive that I only have three teams here and we have a lot of calls to get to,” Smith said. “And stay tuned, because it does need to expand.”
Asked why the mayor’s office chose downtown—and specifically the area Downtown Activation Plan area—for the pilot, given that there are so many other neighborhoods with acute behavioral health needs, Smith said deputy mayor Tim Burgess was responsible for choosing the DAP zone as the first area for the team to focus. “And I think that’s smart, because I really like a comprehensive effort, so you can test things,” Smith added. “It’s already an area of emphasis where there are resources [already going].”
However, Smith noted that even with behavioral health teams responding to calls, the city isn’t paying for any new programs or places for people to go once the new first responders arrive.
“I don’t want people to hope that I’m showing up with a secret set of resources,” Smith said. “I don’t have anything more than what we already have in the system.” The crisis care centers levy, which passed in April, and a new opioid overdose recovery center funded partly by federal grants will add some capacity, but—as we’ve noted—the mayor’s latest budget provides no additional funding for treatment, behavioral health care, or diversion.