[Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part discussion that began in the June 24 edition of The Sentinel with CGPD Chief Scott Shepherd on how police departments across the nation are re-examining the current model of law enforcement and what can be done to improve it at the local level.]
In the recent calls for law enforcement reform gripping the nation, the vast range of proposals on the table has reflected a great disagreement about how the issue of police violence and discrimination ought to be addressed.
While some demand the defunding or even abolition of police departments, other suggestions have focused on policy reform or rethinking training and policing models.
For a city like Cottage Grove, these national concerns find little currency in any critique of its local department — even so, the Cottage Grove Police Department (CGPD) is taking a hard look at potential areas of improvement.
Trained, but strained
Officers in the CGPD follow the state requirements of having received a high school graduation or equivalent, passing physical and academic testing and attending basic academy training (a 16-week class in Portland).
The department also requires another 12 weeks of three-phased field training and an additional four to eight months’ probationary period where new officers work solo under constant evaluations.
After this, state requirements mandate maintenance training, which amount to 84 training hours every three years.
Annually, the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training requires that officers receive eight hours for use of force or firearms and one hour of ethics training.
Under the three-year requirement, three hours of mental health and crisis intervention training are also required.
As well as maintaining First-Aid and CPR certification at all times, the remaining of the 84 training hours often go into retaining specific certifications.
Through various accredited training options, officers may also bring different specialties to the table, rounding out the department’s skill set.
The CGPD’s skilled officers include crisis intervention team instructors, firearms instructors, a Taser instructor, a defensive tactics instructor and a pepper spray, pepper ball and special munitions instructor.
Daily training bullets also give officers 15-minute refreshers on how to follow policy in specific situations.
Despite this range of training, CGPD Chief Scott Shepherd feels there are times when officers are overstretched.
“We do everything from parking tickets to murders and everything in between,” he said. “I think the thing that possibly stretches our ability — and we’re asked to do more of it than a Eugene or bigger agency would — is crisis intervention.”
Crisis interventions are time-sensitive responses to situations which involve a psychotherapeutic approach to stabilizing individuals in crisis states.
Such situations include responding to people who have mental health challenges, acute depression or addiction and the CGPD must rely mainly on officers’ de-escalation and communication skills to find solutions.
“There are a lot of things we have to be good at because we’re often the first ones to show up,” said Shepherd. “And it really all boils down to communication and being able to communicate with a variety of people in a variety of mental states for a variety of reasons.”
Shepherd said these situations can occur on a daily basis and the lack of a clear step-by-step process or checklist to deal with each particular situation can be a strain on officers.
“Sometimes it does seem to be a little daunting,” he said. “Part of that is because our mental health programs are stretched and limited in what they can do. … I think there are times we are required to be more social workers than police officers.”
As such, Shepherd has expressed his admiration for White Bird Clinic’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) model in Eugene.
The CAHOOTS program was launched in 1989, developed as an innovative community-based public safety system to provide mental health first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
The program mobilizes two-person teams consisting of a medic (a nurse, paramedic or EMT) and a crisis worker who has substantial training and experience in the mental health field.
In 2019, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police backup was requested only 150 times, greatly reducing the strain on the Eugene Police Department (EPD).
“Many times what we hear from our law enforcement partners is that they’re tired of being the de facto mental health responders,” said White Bird Clinic Co-Coordinator Ben Brubaker. “They don’t want to have to deal with those things, especially when it’s not criminal in nature.”
As well as maintaining high praise from law enforcement through the years, part of the program’s success can be attributed to White Bird Clinic’s established trust within the community.
“I’d say that our non-judgmental, meet-people-where-they’re-at approach to clients is … the cornerstone of how we’ve been able to develop the kind of programs we have today,” said Brubaker.
With a budget of about $2.1 million annually compared to EPD’s roughly $68 million, CAHOOTS teams answered 17 percent of the EPD’s overall call volume in 2017.
From this, the program has stated that it saves the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually, though Brubaker admits that number deserves some wiggle room due to the difficulty in measuring all costs.
“I know that we save on, if nothing else, personnel hours just by being able to respond instead of EMS or police when their level of response isn’t needed,” he said. “And there’s an associated per-call expense. … We’re simply able to keep those costs down with our particular model because we don’t take the same level of equipment out.”
Brubaker also points to the group’s ability to avoid ambulance rides and emergency room visits for clients through preventative services.
With the combination of the program’s success and the recent national debate surrounding law enforcement reform, CAHOOTS has been providing consulting and strategic guidance to communities across the nation that are seeking to replicate the model.
“Every community is different and I believe the community conversation needs to drive whatever models and implementations happen,” said Brubaker. “And that goes for across the nation — it is not a cookie-cutter model.”
Though the model operates on some basic premises, Brubaker encourages jurisdictions to identify unmet community needs in translating the program.
The City of Florence on the coast has seen some success since it began operating its own Mental Crisis Response (MCR) program last November, based in part on the CAHOOTS model.
The MCR deploys mental health professionals to work with local law enforcement on issues normally handled by officers alone and the city is looking for county funding to explore more possibilities.
Cottage Grove, however, is not as far along.
“We have the CAHOOTS-type calls, but we don’t have the CAHOOTS-type resource,” said Shepherd.
Instead, the department at times reaches out to local nonprofit South Lane Mental Health (SLMH) and the PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Medical Center for assistance.
In exploring new options, the police department and SLMH have begun having conversations with CAHOOTS-type models in mind.
“Regarding CAHOOTS, SLMH works closely with White Bird and we will often have them come down to do staff trainings regarding crisis de-escalation and intervention,” said SLMH Executive Director Damien Sands. “We very much see them as a sister agency, and in the last few years have had discussions around how a CAHOOTS-like program might work for us.”
The nonprofit has so far found good chemistry with CGPD when aid is needed to address mental health care and support situations.
“We really value our relationship with CGPD, and I have witnessed the amazing work of [Shepherd’s] staff first hand when it comes to crisis calls,” said Sands. “When both SLMH and CGPD are on site at a call, I have seen clear communication and each group allowing the other to fill their respective duties.
“That said, both groups are overstretched and we are limited by our hours and funding in how we can offer more support.”
Both Sands and Shepherd see funding as a significant hurdle to implementing a more effective program.
“We could build a CAHOOTS ‘lite’ model in partnership with CGPD, White Bird and possibly Lane County [Health and Human Services], where there are some funds for rural crisis,” suggested Sands, “but ultimately this would be for the city to put forward as a priority.”
Shepherd agrees a model along these lines would be a great benefit to the police department, “But it would cost money,” he lamented. “I do see a potential where some partnerships could be developed where a smaller version or offshoot of [CAHOOTS] could work.”
Brubaker expressed optimism about the partnership.
“South Lane Mental Health has been a big partner of ours for decades and they are very capable of working that out with public safety about how they could integrate in and become a good response,” he said.
Brubaker noted that rural communities tend to see challenges with the geographic spread across a large area and how far a team could reach into the countryside. As team responses increase in mileage, law enforcement backup response times and the number of calls taken in a day start to diminish.
“CAHOOTS started off with a very truncated schedule of a few days a week for what they considered to be high-density call times,” said Brubaker, who recommended small towns target these times to have an intervention team and vehicle available in a pilot program.
Expansion of the program could follow the pilot’s success.
Brubaker also noted a common hurdle to launching such a program is getting communities to make the initial investment.
“It’s hard to convince people of money they’re going to not spend,” he said.
Identifying spending around areas where law enforcement is dealing with non-criminal activity is a good start, he said, as well as noting the high-frequency utilizers of emergency departments.
In addition to the cost savings, Brubaker feels the model simply makes ethical sense.
“Ultimately, we really do believe that client-centered, humanistic, trauma-informed kind of care response model is better for the individual being served,” he said. “It’s the right people going to the right calls.”
While CGPD explores the possibility of a new crisis intervention response model, it is also working on outreach to certain demographics of Cottage Grove’s minority communities.
Since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Minn., by police officer Derek Chauvin, the national outcry against police violence has been marked by concerns and anger over racial discrimination.
With the CGPD, Shepherd does not see race as playing into the department’s decision-making process.
“We don’t look at someone for the color of their skin,” he said. “We look at their behavior.”
The department’s policy manual includes a passage specifically targeting discrimination, oppression and favoritism:
“Discriminating against, oppressing or providing favoritism to any person because of age, race, color, creed, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, ancestry, marital status, physical or mental disability, medical condition or other classification protected by law, or intentionally denying or impeding another in the exercise or enjoyment of any right, privilege, power or immunity, knowing the conduct is unlawful,” it states.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports Cottage Grove’s Black or African Americans as making up 1.3 percent of the city’s population while Hispanic or Latino residents represent 10.8 percent, making the latter demographic a key part of the police department’s outreach efforts.
With two Spanish speakers on the force, the department has tried to use those skills to its advantage.
“It has allowed us to interact and be more effective in our communication, both during investigations and also just casual contacts,” said Shepherd.
Cottage Grove is also home to a significant Guatemalan population which speaks Mam, a Mayan language which is distinct from Spanish and often requires a special interpreter to communicate with the English-speaking world.
“We’ve been in contact occasionally with the spiritual leaders of those groups — the priests or pastors of some of the areas where they congregate,” said Shepherd.
Though population numbers are hard to come by, Shepherd estimated there to be about 250 Mam speakers in the community as of a few years ago, though that number is likely to have grown.
The department has tried to maintain an open dialogue by reaching out to the few community members who have access to the population.
“We’ve made our services and willingness to meet with those groups readily known,” said Shepherd, referring to the general Spanish-speaking populace as well. “But we’re being sensitive to their reluctance to interact with law enforcement.”
CGPD had also been looking into prepping first graders and kindergartners with simple emergency skills using Spanish speakers before the coronavirus outbreak closed down schools.
Shepherd acknowledges that, despite some progress, there is still a trust issue to overcome.
“It’s a little bit of a dance,” he said. “We’re at the point where we will try to do anything for anybody in that community to do more outreach, but we don’t want to push ourselves on them because we don’t want to be too direct or overbearing.”
In establishing that trust, Shepherd hopes to communicate the department’s commitment to equal and fair treatment for all residents.
“The simple message is, if you don’t commit a crime, there’s nothing else we want to do with you other than serve you,” he said.