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In Olympia, Wash., a team of mental health support professionals roams the town in a van and responds to non-violent situations formerly handled by police.

Members of the City Council’s Human Services Committee showed interest in the Olympia model and others like it at their Aug. 31 meeting, backing the establishment of a subcommittee to examine models such as in place in Olympia, Denver, Colorado, and other communities as an alternative to the City’s current emergency response system.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, chairing the meeting, told Committee members that what is being done in those places may not be an exact model for Evanston, “but I think they provide some very helpful examples for us as we want to think about what might work for us here.”

Aldermen began considering alternatives to current police response over the past few months, responding to protests that arose after George Floyd’s death in May and prompted local activists to call for a reduction in the Evanston Police Department’s budget. 

Evanston devotes more than 35% of its General Fund and nearly 13% of its total spending to its annual $41.1 million police budget. About 94% of that money goes to salaries, pensions and other benefits for the department’s 202 employees.

Critics of the current system charge it can lead to “over-policing” and can involve situations police aren’t trained to deal with, leading to unwanted incidents.

The Olympia program was one of the alternative policing systems featured in an Aug. 24 Q&A session moderated by Mayor Stephen Hagerty.

The Mayor has been hosting the programs — which present different sides of policing  — in advance of Council discussions on the FY 2021 budget, which are due to start up soon.

In Olympia, in 2017, citizens passed a referendum to fund a public safety fund, which included funding for a mobile crisis unit, said Anne Larsen, the outreach coordinator for the Olympia crisis intervention program, speaking at the Mayor’s Aug. 24 session. The referendum passed overwhelmingly, she said, and created funds, $550,000 for a Crisis Response Unit, and $250,000 for direct services.

Olympia’s Crisis Response Unit includes two behavioral health specialists who work 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week from a specially-designed van, she said.

“The crew can get dispatched to the scene from our 911 system,” Ms. Larsen said. Or “a lot of times officers are on a scene, and they’ll request the crew team over police radio.”

The unit also assists “fire [the Fire Department] a lot, because a lot of our folks that we serve have chronic medical conditions, and so a lot of our folks are just really medically fragile. And so, we’ll get referrals,” Ms. Larsen said in the interview.

She said the group’s work can start early in the morning, with crew members waking up people who are homeless “in a nicer gentler way, and helping build some relationships and starting connecting them to services,” she said.

She noted that when the crew first came on board they did some cross-training — “kind of helping them understand police culture and the way that we might be doing a situation.”

Speaking at the Aug. 31 Committee meeting, Ald. Revelle noted that the Olympia unit went on nearly 700 calls in its first two months.

“A lot of them are self-initiated,” she pointed out.

“Sometimes a police officer will say, ‘Gosh, I don’t really need to be involved in this call,’ and they all call the crew team.

Obviously some [of the calls] come from 911. Some, maybe come from the business community, familiar with [the crisis unit’s] routine,” she said.

One big advantage of the program is “not only do they [the crisis Intervention workers] spend more time at the crisis situation, but then they follow up the following day, the following week,” she said. “It’s more of a sort of a full round of support and assistance so it really is a social service response, rather than a police response, to the calls.”

Other Committee members spoke in support of the move.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, pointed to features in the Denver program, featured on the Mayor’s program, that included responders with medical training.

“Because I think, particularly with people who have some really severe mental health issues, medical training might be necessary,” she said.

She counted as a plus that Olympia crisis intervention team members do not rely on 911 calls, “but also [are] doing a little bit more with reaching out to folks before they even are making that call.”

Ald. Revelle told Committee members she believed the Mayor would appoint members to the subcommittee, similar to what he did earlier this year, naming citizens to a police oversight committee.

She said a “placeholder” could be established, providing funding for the committee’s work from mid-October until the end of the year, when officials believe some money will become available. City staff estimated $200,000 might be available for use.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, called the Committee’s step forward as “very positive in my view, but it is complicated.”

“And one of the things that I think I’m missing at here [is] getting all of our social service providers — have everyone represented everybody at the table, so that we can have a consolidated response — so that we know exactly what we need, what others can provide.”

Ald. Fiske, who at the last meeting expressed concern about the effect reductions to the police force, said police should have a place at the table too.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.