Senator wants increased Medicaid funding to pay for unarmed response teams replacing police

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A U.S. senator from Oregon would like to see an increase in Medicaid to help finance unarmed response teams that would replace police officers in some circumstances.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, believes a Eugene-based program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) that has been in existence for decades could be expanded around the country to more effectively handling mental health-related calls than conventional police, according to OregonLive.

Wyden’s office said in a release that the CAHOOTS measure “takes best practices from Oregon and encourages states to adopt them through increased Medicaid funding.”

The measure has already been included in a wider bill drawn up by Senate Democrats earlier this year called the “Justice in Policing Act of 2020. The bill is supported by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). It is supported in the House by Democratic Reps. Karen Bass of California and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York.

Wyden signed onto the broader measure in June, OregonLive reported. Last month, he was among Oregon’s congressional delegation in calling for probes into the Trump administration’s deployment of additional federal agents to protect a courthouse in Portland, where rioters and anarchists had been attacking it for weeks.

“We’re really excited to be working directly with the senator and his staff, and they’re providing tremendous opportunity for our viewpoint as we weigh in while they deliberate on various components of the legislation,” Chris Hecht, executive coordinator of White Bird Clinic, where the CAHOOTS program originated, said in July.

“It’s really a great opportunity for us. Partially, we’re learning how the sausage is made,” he added.

It’s not clear how much additional funding on the federal level such a program would need.

Also, it’s not clear if CAHOOTS differs significantly from similar programs that have popped up after President Donald Trump signed his “Safe Police for Safe Communities” executive order in mid-June, as an alternative to defunding police departments.

“All Americans are entitled to live with the confidence that the law enforcement officers and agencies in their communities will live up to our Nation’s founding ideals and will protect the rights of all persons. Particularly in African-American communities, we must redouble our efforts as a Nation to swiftly address instances of misconduct,” the president’s order states.

Some cities already have programs that line up with the president’s order, including Dallas and Denver, Fox News noted last month.

In June, Denver launched its Support Team Assisted Response Program; Dallas has had the RIGHT Care Program since 2018.

As for CAHOOTS, the leaders of the Eugene-based program have already been meeting with officials in cities around the country.

In July, CAHOOTS leaders told officials in Providence, R.I., that the organization had responded to some 24,000 calls, or about 20 percent of 911 requests, the Providence Journal reported.

“CAHOOTS is not law enforcement,” said Daniel Antonson, a former medic with the organization, at a meeting. “They do not carry weapons, but rather they utilize trauma-informed deescalation and harm reduction techniques.”

In a recent op-ed, Mark Pinsley, controller of Lehigh County, Pa., said that only about 250 of the 24,000 calls required police assistance.

Similar programs have gained new attention following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis during an encounter with police in May. The incident sparked widespread, sustained demonstrations and rioting, as well as renewed conversations about law enforcement interaction with suspects.

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Jon Dougherty

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