A Proposition: REACT for Monterey County Introducing the Monterey County Response & Emergency Assistance Crisis Team

Crisis worker Ebony Morgan, of Eugene’s CAHOOTS | Provided photo

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By Joe Livernois

Monterey County and its cities could save millions of dollars every year, and people in crisis could get the help they really need, if a tiny percentage of the money spent on law enforcement is used to create and operate a fully-funded mobile crisis response program, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week across the county.

Such a program, as envisioned by Voices of Monterey Bay, would drastically improve services to residents who are in need without severely impacting existing police services. Voices this week unveils its proposal, called the Monterey County Response & Emergency Assistance Crisis Team, or REACT for short. In fact, by working in tandem, police agencies and REACT teams could actually improve response time and outcomes while saving millions of taxpayers dollars.

According to law enforcement budgets compiled by Monterey County Weekly earlier this year, police agencies in the county spend about $250 million annually to enforce the law, to protect citizens against the bad guys and to provide social-service care to good people who are in crisis. But REACT teams deployed to handle nonviolent crisis calls would free officers and deputies to investigate and solve crimes, and to deal with more pressing matters of public safety.

Effective crisis response models already exist in other regions of the United States, and they work. It can happen in Monterey County if leaders are willing to put aside their reflexive reaction to changes that have the potential to benefit residents.

If leaders in the county and each of its cities are willing to give up even 5 percent of their police budgets — or find comparative dollars elsewhere in their budgets — the county could administer REACT teams 24 hours a day, seven days a week across most of the entire county.

Police administrators constantly complain that too much of their officers’ time is spent responding to what amounts to social-service calls to people who need basic care — people in a mental-health crisis, people who are sleeping off a drunk on a sidewalk, people who are lost, dazed or confused. The time officers spend on those duties takes them from responding to and apprehending criminals. And unless officers have been trained in crisis intervention techniques, the chances are higher that an otherwise-nonviolent call may escalate into something tragic.

Programs like REACT already exist. The best example is in Eugene, Ore., a college town with a population a bit higher than the city of Salinas. That program is called CAHOOTS, and it has been in operation more than 30 years. CAHOOTS is an acronym for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets.

“The police really like us because we divert them from doing the stuff they don’t like doing” Ben Climer, CAHOOTS

In Eugene, mobile teams deal with a full range of issues in the city, including mental health-related crises, conflict resolution, welfare checks, substance abuse, suicide threats and more. They also handle non-emergency medical issues, avoiding costly ambulance rides and emergency-room treatment.

CAHOOTS officials say they respond to up to 17 percent of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume. And they say they do it on a budget that represents about 2 percent of EPD’s annual spending.

“The police really like us because we divert them from doing the stuff they don’t like doing,” said Ben Climer, a representative from CAHOOTS, during a recent conference call with a group of Monterey County activists. “They don’t like talking to suicidal teenagers. They don’t like waking up people on the streets.”

While he was a mobile crisis team member, Climer said, “it was not uncommon for me to be pulling someone who’s living in the streets, intoxicated, out of the mud while it’s pouring-down rain and putting them in the back of the van and driving them to the sobering center, and five minutes later I’m in a 7,000 square-foot house talking with a teenage child of a very wealthy family who is feeling very depressed.”

At the moment in Monterey County, those are the sorts of calls police and deputies are summoned to handle. Those are the sorts of calls trained civilians could be doing while police are chasing down bad guys.

Voices asked Taylor Perse, a reporter for Eugene Weekly who is experienced with Solutions Journalism programs, to describe CAHOOTS for Voices’ readers. Her story can be read here. This week’s The VOMB Squad podcast features Climer, who discusses how CAHOOTS works in Eugene and how REACT could work in Monterey County.

The REACT Proposal

Much of Voices of Monterey Bay’s proposal is cribbed from what is working in Eugene and its successful mobile crisis program. Voices has extrapolated costs and staffing from the CAHOOTS model to reflect Monterey County’s landscape, needs and populations.

As envisioned by Voices, REACT would employ a minimum of 90 responders to cover six geographical regions of the county 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Each team of responders would include a medical professional (nurse, EMT, etc.) and a crisis counselor, at least one of whom would be bilingual in Spanish. Regions would include:

  • Area 1 — Marina, North County, Pajaro, Moss Landing
  • Area 2 — Sand City, Seaside, Monterey
  • Area 3 — Pacific Grove, Carmel, Pebble Beach, Carmel Valley
  • Area 4 — North and East Salinas
  • Area 5 — South Salinas, Chualar
  • Area 6 — South County, including Gonzales, Soledad, Greenfield and King City

REACT team members will not be law enforcement officers and they will not carry weapons. REACT will respond to a wide range of calls that are now handled by peace officers, including:

  • People living on the streets
  • People experiencing psychosis or mania
  • People with suicidal ideation
  • Family members in dispute
  • People with minor medical issues they can’t handle themselves
  • People under the influence in public.
  • People living in shelters, group homes and etc.

Teams would rely on trauma-informed de-escalation and harm-reduction techniques. They would also handle “non-emergent” medical issues, avoiding costly ambulance transport and emergency room treatments.

Police dispatchers who handle 911 emergency calls would be trained to assess calls that would be most appropriate for REACT responses.

The REACT program would cost about $12 million annually, more or less. That annual cost is based on the median annual salary (including benefits) of Monterey County government employees, which is about $107,000, with about 20 percent added for administrative costs.

Assessments from participating agencies would commence immediately upon the establishment of REACT. During the first year of operations, REACT will develop its administrative infrastructure, establish policy and procedures, purchase capital needs (vehicles, equipment, offices), and recruit and train REACT responders. In addition to its governing body, which would be composed of representatives from participating agencies and the public, an advisory committee representing appropriate community interests would provide oversight and guidance to the governing board.

Based on results of similar programs operating in municipalities around the country, REACT could save the county and its cities up to $40 million annually. Cities may contribute to the program with funds they will save from police budgets, or they could choose to find other funding sources.

REACT Administration

Who should operate a program like this?

Voices of Monterey Bay has identified and would recommend any one of three different administrative options to run REACT. They include:

  • The Monterey County Behavioral Health Department, a county office that operates, administers or oversees a number of existing programs in the county for people with mental health and/or substance abuse programs.

The department also administers an effective Crisis Intervention Training, a 40-hour instructional program designed to teach peace officers how to deal with and to de-escalate potentially challenging situations they deal with on the streets.

Up until recently, the department also operated mobile crisis units in the county. While the intentions were good, those mobile crisis units were terribly underfunded, overwhelmingly understaffed and, in retrospect, destined for failure. The crisis units employed three social workers who were responsible for crisis responses throughout the entire county.

Monterey County government has the administrative bandwidth, the recruitment and training capacity and the expertise to assume much of the operational support needed to run a program like REACT. The county Board of Supervisors would have pass-through financial authority of the program, though an advisory committee consisting of representatives from the participating agencies could oversee the program.

  • A third-party vendor, from a choice of several existing community assistance programs that currently contract with the county and/or cities to provide help and support to people dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse and homelessness.

That model would be based on the successful CAHOOTS program in operation in Eugene, where a community health organization called White Bird Clinic contracts with the city and with nearby Springfield to provide around-the-clock mobile crisis teams.

Contracting with a consultant might lower costs of REACT, since contractors aren’t bound by prevailing wage and by union contracts that result in higher salaries among county employees. On the other hand, if the CAHOOTS experience is any indication, the retention of staff is an ongoing issue due to relatively low salaries, and Voices would recommend paying REACT staff at prevailing Monterey County wages.

The third-party consultant would answer to the Board of Supervisors, but an independent oversight commission should be formed to ensure the program is operational and efficient.

  • A joint powers agreement, which would create a new quasi-governmental agency formed by all participating jurisdictions in the county, including cities, the counties and any other government agency serving a population that can benefit from REACT services.

Cities and counties everywhere develop joint powers authorities to pay for and to administer different service-driven responsibilities. As an example, a joint powers agreement was created with Monterey County and five Salinas Valley cities to create the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority, which is responsible for the operations of landfills and trash pickup sites throughout the region.

A joint powers authority generally hires its own administrators who answer to a board of directors composed of representatives from the participating jurisdictions.

Why Now?

Voices of Monterey Bay has followed the Black Lives Matter and the “defund” police arguments closely following the death of George Floyd. Its proposal is in response to the notion that some reallocation of police resources can make a real difference in our communities.

Voices has witnessed the reaction among police associations and some “law-and-order” leaders in the community who react to any possible alternative to the status quo as if they are attacks on police agencies. Those reactions are counterproductive and they tend to drown out all valid discourse around policing and the honest needs in communities.

Voices believes that most police officers genuinely want to do right for the citizens they serve. We also know that police officers are not trained to be social workers, but they are continually expected to deal with every social problem they encounter on the streets.

Rather than dismiss any call to reallocate local resources, Voices of Monterey Bay believes now is as good a time as any to consider valid alternatives.

Twenty years ago, in response to a series of officer-involved shootings throughout Monterey County, a coalition of activists and local organizations demanded changes to policing. The knee-jerk reaction then was very similar to what is taking place now. But the activists persisted and they eventually convinced the county to start offering Crisis Intervention Training to peace officers. Crisis intervention teaches officers to approach calls involving people in a mental-health crisis in a different way. Crisis intervention teaches de-escalation, the positive results that come with calm, and the power of empathy.

At the time, peace officers approached these 40-hour trainings as a waste of their valuable time. They didn’t care to have a bunch of social workers and mental-health patients tell them how to do their jobs. Over time, however, the results spoke for themselves. Communities where officers participate in CIT have seen significant reductions in officer-involved shootings and other tragedies which, incidentally, tend to get extremely expensive for cities once the lawsuits are settled.

Establishing the CIT program in Monterey County was a struggle, but it happened because local activists and local leaders recognized the value of alternative programs. It also happened because one plucky cop, a former Sand City chief of police named Mike Klein, turned Crisis Intervention Training into his personal campaign and he eventually persuaded his colleagues to see the light.

What’s Next?

Voices of Monterey Bay is very aware that creating a countywide program like REACT will not happen without difficulties, that leaders in some cities will want nothing to do with anything that upsets the status quo.

The more likely outcome, at least in the short term, could be a more regional approach that can serve as a pilot project.

Happily, mayors from cities across Monterey County recently heard a presentation from Climer about CAHOOTS after Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado joined a group of activists from Marina to learn about mobile crisis response.

Monterey Mayor Clyde Roberson said the mayors were receptive to the idea. “The political will is there, I believe,” he said. “The economic ability will be the challenge for a lot of cities.” He said he believes most police agencies in the county will be amenable to working with a team that would take the social-service type calls off their plate.

At the same time, Roberson said he doubts cities will be jumping into the issue for at least the next couple of months. “The elections are coming up in November and most of us are focused on that,” he said. “Until the election, I’m afraid any major new program will be in limbo.”

Delgado learned about CAHOOTS when he participated in a Zoom call an activist group organized with Climer about six weeks ago..

One of those Marina activists, Ashley Zentz, said she was raised in Eugene and was able to witness firsthand the good work CAHOOTS was doing in the community. “I was able to see CAHOOTS assist in some challenging situations growing up,” said Zentz. “I’ve always been very impressed with the way they support the community and with the model itself.”

Voices is planning a Town Hall Meeting via Zoom with key leaders in the near future to discuss the proposal, likely after the November elections.  What happens after that will depend on how the community responds.

In the meantime, tell us what you think about the REACT proposal by taking the quick survey below. And if you believe it is an idea worthy of public consideration, write or call your representatives on the Board of Supervisors or your city council.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

3 thoughts on “A Proposition: REACT for Monterey County Introducing the Monterey County Response & Emergency Assistance Crisis Team

  1. Great project, Joe. It is an idea whose time has come. It will help to keep people out of the criminal justice system who really belong in the mental health system. It will also keep people out of the criminal justice system whose real “crime” is being poor. Thanks for doing this.

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