Seattle City Councilmember Andrew J. Lewis, chair of the council’s Select Committee on Homelessness Strategies and Investments, announced Monday he will introduce legislation to create and fully fund a new mental health and substance addiction first-responder program, based on a Eugene, Oregon, program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets, or CAHOOTS. 

According to a press release from Lewis’s office, CAHOOTS outreach teams are unarmed and composed of a medic and a mental health crisis worker. They are immediately dispatched by 911 to respond to people experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis and can offer counseling, conflict resolution, housing referrals, first aid and immediate transportation to services.  

“When a building is on fire we send the fire department,” Lewis said in a press release. “When someone has a stroke, we send an ambulance. Why do we send armed police to help someone in a mental health or drug-related crisis? By the most conservative estimates, one in every four people fatally shot by a police officer has a mental illness. This has to stop.” 

According to Lewis’s office, CAHOOTS responds to nearly 24,000 calls, representing almost 20 percent of all 911 calls. Out of all those calls, CAHOOTS workers only requested police assistance 150 times in 2019. More than 60 percent of clients are experiencing homelessness. This successful program has saved Eugene on average $8.5 million a year in policing costs and $14 million a year in emergency medical response costs. 

“We cannot police our way out of poverty, racial inequity, homelessness and our mental health crisis,” Lewis said. “By diverting these types of calls to CAHOOTS, Seattle has the opportunity to save money and invest in a program that adequately responds to people’s essential needs.”

Lewis intends to submit a proviso in the summer budget session directing Mayor Jenny Durkan to quickly develop and scale up the program and fund it by cutting SPD’s budget. While there are existing programs currently responding to mental health and homeless crisis calls, Lewis intends this program to be wired into the city’s 911 dispatch system. 

“In Eugene, CAHOOTS responds to 20 percent of all calls. It makes sense that if we significantly reduce SPD’s caseload we should reduce their funding as well,” Lewis said.  

The Seattle City Council may consider the legislation as part of the summer session of its Select Budget Committee. 

Lewis represents Queen Anne and Magnolia as part of his district.