Are Social Workers Better Equipped Than Police to Handle Mental Health Crises?

By Caretivity

Caretivity helps social workers stay connected so they can provide better care to their clients. 

April 5, 2021

Since 2015, one in four people killed by police had a mental health disorder. People undergoing mental health crises need help, but sometimes an armed officer isn’t the professional that is best equipped to handle the situation.

Cities across the country are experimenting with partnershipbetween law enforcement and social workers. These programs allow for teams of social workers to respond to non-violent distress calls from people undergoing mental health and sometimes drug-related crises. The social workers have the necessary training and skills to safely resolve these situations with appropriate treatment.

The city of Eugene, Oregon, originally founded the idea in 1989. Known as CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), the program was designed as a mental health first response to non-violent distress calls.

CAHOOTS teams use expertise in de-escalation and harm reduction to ensure non-violent outcomes of crisis situations. CAHOOTS teams remain in contact with the individuals to determine the next stages of treatment for the people in crisis.

The CAHOOTS program has been nothing short of a success: In 2019, out of 24,000 calls to CAHOOTS, police backup was requested only 150 times.

This past summer, Denver launched the STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program. Like CAHOOTS, STAR dispatches a mental health clinician and a paramedic to low-level emergencies.

Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen told the local newspaper “if something like STAR or any other support system can lighten the load on mental health calls for service, substance abuse calls for service, and low-level issues, that frees up law enforcement to address crime issues.

About 35 percent of calls to STAR personnel even come from police officers themselvesindicating that Denver Police recognize that STAR personnel are better equipped to handle certain distress calls.

CAHOOTS and STAR provide guidance for cities around the country looking to implement similar programs. Oakland, New York City, Indianapolis, Austin, and Chicago are all currently exploring the idea of having social worker response forces.

If law enforcement recognizes that social workers are better equipped to handle certain distress calls, it benefits these organizations and the individuals they serve.

After seeing these successes in parts of the United States, should programs like these be started nationwide? Would properly trained social workers handle mental health crises better than police in most situations? Should we rely on social worker response teams to be the first responders to these situations? Let us know your thoughts.

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