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Rethinking public safety: Lompoc residents make case for alternate crisis response
‘Lasting change’

Rethinking public safety: Lompoc residents make case for alternate crisis response

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Yasmin Dawson

Yasmin Dawson, a community organizer and recipient of last year's Valley of the Flowers Peace Prize, stands Thursday near a memorial for Michael Giles in the 1000 block of North H Street. Giles was shot and killed by a Lompoc Police officer in 2016 after exhibiting erratic behavior. Dawson and others are pushing to have Lompoc implement a CAHOOTS program that would have unarmed professionals respond to some emergency calls, freeing the police to better address violence.

As calls for police reform were amplified throughout the country last year, Lompoc continued to deal with the devastating impacts of rising gang violence — a troubling trend that has continued into 2021.

In a particularly violent six-week stretch from October to November last year, the Lompoc Police Department said it investigated at least 10 shootings and confiscated 15 firearms. The department held a virtual town hall in early February to address the surge in violence, and the 48 hours preceding that event included at least four more shootings.

“It’s difficult for me to see the violence that keeps escalating in our community,” said Yasmin Dawson, a Lompoc resident and community organizer.

In the wake of that uptick in violent crime, and amid national and local calls for increased police accountability following several highly publicized incidents involving unarmed citizens being killed by armed officers, Dawson and others in and around Lompoc began looking for solutions.

Now formally organized, a growing number of community members are advocating for the city to adopt a 31-year-old program they believe can address both issues: CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. CAHOOTS, which was developed in Oregon and has seen its profile rise over the past year, primarily ensures that unarmed crisis professionals respond to emergency calls for nonviolent or mental health-related situations, rather than armed police.

Adopting such a program, the local supporters believe, would help protect vulnerable citizens — those dealing with homelessness, addiction or mental health crises, as examples — from potentially deadly encounters with police; studies have shown that people react more favorably when approached by someone unarmed. It simultaneously would allow for the Police Department to take a more proactive role in combatting gang violence.

CAHOOTS could “create lasting change for Lompoc,” said Dawson, co-chair of a 13-member Lompoc CAHOOTS task force and recipient of last year’s Valley of the Flowers Peace Prize.

“I really feel like we need it here,” she added.

A different approach

CAHOOTS was first developed and implemented by the city of Eugene, Oregon, in 1989, through a partnership with White Bird Clinic, which specializes in crisis intervention. The program can be tailored to meet the needs of specific communities.

In the Eugene model, two-person teams — made up of a medic and an experienced crisis worker — respond to a wide range of mental health-related calls 24/7. The teams are called upon to deal with conflict resolution, welfare checks and substance-abuse issues, among others.

About 15% of 911 calls in Eugene in 2019 were diverted to CAHOOTS, according to the city. In total, CAHOOTS teams were involved in more than 20,000 calls for service in Eugene in 2019, and those teams requested police backup on around 8% of the calls they responded to.

Anywhere from 20% to 50% of fatal encounters with police involved a person with a mental illness, according to a 2016 report published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The biggest selling point for CAHOOTS is that it can potentially save those lives.

John McReynolds, a co-chair of the Lompoc CAHOOTS task force, said he was first alerted to the program by a friend and fellow member of the Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ. With mental health and addiction services already in demand in Lompoc, he saw potential.

“I started reading stuff, other people started reading stuff, and it kind of made sense,” McReynolds said. “[We asked ourselves], ‘You don’t suppose we could do that here?’”

Other members of the Valley of the Flowers Church got involved, including the Rev. Jane Quandt, and they began reaching out to others in the community to gauge support.

Collective Cultures Creating Change (C4), a community group recently launched by Dawson, was among the local organizations to lend its full backing. Dawson started C4 in the wake of last year’s groundswell of support — evidenced by marches, rallies and vigils — for a more racially equitable and inclusive society.

“This will allow us to treat people with compassion,” Dawson said of CAHOOTS.

Who’s footing the bill?

As is the case for most reforms involving government, cash is a major concern.

CAHOOTS is funded in most municipalities through public-private partnerships between governmental and health-care agencies. In Eugene, a city with a population of approximately 168,000, the CAHOOTS budget is around $2.1 million annually. But, according to White Bird Clinic, the program saved the city about $8.5 million annually from 2014 to 2017 in public safety spending through diverted calls.

It’s too early to tell how much a similar program might cost in Lompoc. The Lompoc CAHOOTS task force is planning to pay a consultant to assess the level of local need and prepare a report that can be delivered to the Lompoc City Council in the coming months. From there, the group is hopeful the city will allocate some funding in this summer’s budget to hire a CAHOOTS staffer to manage the program.

Ultimately, the task force would like for the city to take over and run the program, possibly with grant funding to help offset costs. In what may be an encouraging sign for backers, representatives from two Santa Barbara-based charitable organizations were among 70-plus attendees of an early February virtual presentation on what CAHOOTS could look like in Lompoc.

Other organizations, like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, have expressed support, according to backers, while the Islamic Center of Lompoc has joined the Valley of the Flowers Church in providing early financial support.

Lompoc Police Capt. Kevin Martin said Chief Joe Mariani is supportive of the concept of CAHOOTS but made clear that Mariani has no interest in seeing the program funded at the expense of the Police Department’s budget.

“It’s worked in other communities and it would probably work here, too, if they can get the funding behind it,” Martin said.

Martin said he wasn’t sure what percentage of calls to Lompoc Police might be handled by CAHOOTS, but he acknowledged that officers currently respond to a “significant number” of calls that are associated with CAHOOTS programs.

Although CAHOOTS would take some of those calls away from police, Martin said the department’s overall workload would not decrease. Rather, he said, officers would be able to shift and prioritize other matters.

J.T. Turner, a board member on the Lompoc task force who has worked in the local mental health field, stressed that the CAHOOTS supporters view the program as complementary to the police department, not in competition with it.

“This isn’t about defunding the police; this is about working with the police,” Turner said.

What next

In an ideal scenario, with public and political support, CAHOOTS could be up and running in Lompoc by early 2022.

If the Lompoc City Council were to embrace the idea and allocate funding to get the ball rolling this summer, the city could potentially make itself eligible for federal grant funding, in addition to private grants. A bill was introduced in February by Senate Democrats that, if successful, would provide Medicaid support for jurisdictions that implement CAHOOTS programs.

Many in Lompoc see the program as a win-win for the city. Chiefly, it would remove guns from situations where they are likely not needed, they say, probably saving lives in the process. At the same time, it could free up police officers to train a sharper focus on the violence gripping the city.

McReynolds, the task force co-chair, said he’s seen the fear on people’s faces while canvassing neighborhoods to discuss CAHOOTS.

“They’re afraid to have their kids go out in the street, in their front yard,” he said.

Dawson, his co-chair, said she was hopeful Lompoc would give the program a chance.

“This country and this community is much in need of this,” she said of CAHOOTS. “We’re all suffering a certain amount of trauma right now and I think this will be the answer to some of our problems.”

For more information on the Lompoc CAHOOTS push, or to volunteer time or money to the effort, visit @cahootslompoc on Facebook or email cahootslompoc@gmail.com.

"This country and this community is much in need of (CAHOOTS). We’re all suffering a certain amount of trauma right now and I think this will be the answer to some of our problems."

— Yasmin Dawson, Lompoc resident and community organizer

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