Led by Vanessa Nordyke, last June the Salem City Council appropriated $135,000 for a mental health crisis response team similar to the CAHOOTS program that has been a big success in Eugene -- where a medic and crisis worker handle about 17% of the police department's call volume, saving about $12 million a year at a cost of about $2.1 million a year.
But now the Salem project is on life support, according to a Salem Reporter story, "Salem, United Way halt plans for mental health crisis responder program."
The city of Salem paused its plans to start a program where mental health workers respond to some crisis calls, rather than police.
The program was intended to run through United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley and received broad support from Salem residents who testified as the city was planning its budget for the coming year.
But city plans hinged on receiving state money that’s no longer directly available to them.
The House Behavioral Health Committee in January voted unanimously in favor of HB 2417, which would provide matching funds to cities for mobile response units through a competitive grant process.
Salem city councilor Vanessa Nordyke said a change in the bill during the legislative process required counties - no longer cities - to request a piece of the $10 million the state allocated for crisis stabilization services, and cities could in turn ask for money from their respective counties.
“As I understand it, there is no such interest from the Marion County commissioners,” Nordyke said.
This is unfortunate, yet sadly predictable.
It seems clear that City of Salem officials are much less fond of the crisis team proposal than Nordyke and the progressive members of the City Council are. City Manager Steve Powers didn't include any money for this in his draft recommended budget. It got added in by the Budget Committee after citizens expressed strong support for the crisis program.
The Police Department budget is about $49 million. So the $135,000 set aside for a mental health crisis team is insultingly pitiful.
Insulting, that is, to the homeless people, suicidal people, and others in Salem who need a caring, compassionate, competent response to their distress that a medic and mental health worker would provide, rather than sending police officers out who aren't trained to deal with those sorts of crises and often make them worse rather than better.
Now, I understand that Nordyke and others pushing for a Salem version of the CAHOOTS program had to accept whatever pittances they could get out of the $146 million City of Salem General Fund budget.
It's just irritating that chances for the program to get off the ground now rest on the three Republican members of the Marion County Board of Commissioners deigning to send Salem the county's share of the $10 million in state funds for crisis stabilization services.
Almost certainly that will happen, like, never.
Councilor Nordyke is a persuasive advocate for a Salem crisis response team. But she's a progressive trying to get money from the very conservative Board of Commissioners, who undoubtedly view this proposal as a way to undercut traditional law enforcement.
Which, in a way, it is. And that's a good thing.
This isn't an attempt to totally defund the police. It's a small, but important, step toward redefining what the Salem Police Department should be doing. Or rather, not doing. As noted above, in 2017 Eugene's CAHOOTS program was able to deal with 17% of the Police Department's call volume.
The CAHOOTS teams deal with a wide range of mental health-related crises, including conflict resolution, welfare checks, substance abuse, suicide threats, and more, relying on trauma-informed de-escalation and harm reduction techniques.
CAHOOTS staff are not law enforcement officers and do not carry weapons; their training and experience are the tools they use to ensure a non-violent resolution of crisis situations. They also handle non-emergent medical issues, avoiding costly ambulance transport and emergency room treatment.
There's simply no reason to have police officers dealing with problems that can be handled more competently and less expensively by a crisis response team. However, likely the Marion County commissioners never will admit this, so funds for a Salem program need to be sought elsewhere.
Oh, here's an idea! How about we look in the $49 million budget for the Salem Police Department and find a few hundred thousand dollars by, say, leaving a few police officer positions vacant for the next year or so.
Jim Scheppke, citizen activist and retired librarian who knows how to research things like this, recently sent me a spreadsheet showing Salem crime statistics for the first seven months of 2020 and 2021, using Oregon State Police data.
This points to something obvious, but frequently forgotten: crime isn't like gravity, an immutable law of nature. It's a social construct. Redefine what "crime" means and you change the role of police departments.
Likewise, a mental health crisis doesn't need to be handled by a police officer.
This is just something our society has gotten used to. Since it doesn't make sense for this to happen, Salem should unapologetically say, "Police Department, we still need you to deal with serious crimes, but not for handling problems that don't require a police officer response."
Here's how I put it in a June 2020 post, "City Council should cut budget of Salem Police Department."
Most people, including me, who favor "Defund the police" aren't calling for no police at all. We just believe there is plenty of room to reduce the amount of taxpayer money that is going into the budgets of police departments.
The first step toward doing this is getting away from the indefensible notion that police are so special, taking a close look at what they do and how they do it shouldn't happen.
Actually, and obviously, police officers are just people.
Their job can be difficult. So are almost all jobs. Their job can be dangerous. So are lots of other jobs. There's no reason to morally elevate police over other professions that also are important to society just because they generally carry a gun in this country.
With that first step out of the way, we can move toward considering the "why" and "how" questions that are basic to budgetary decisions in both the public and private sectors.
Why is this program or policy important? Why is it valued? How are those goals best achieved? How could things be done more effectively and efficiently?