Eureka Springs council hears about alternative policing

Tuesday, March 30, 2021
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The Eureka Springs City Council heard from University of Arkansas representatives about alternative methods of policing on Monday, March 22.

Kim Stauss, chair of the university’s school of social work, presented information on community policing with her colleague Mark Plassmeyer. Stauss said the school of social work has been working with the Fayetteville Police Department to gather quantitative and qualitative data on the types of police work that social workers can help with.

“Every community is different and we just wanted to … be a resource for you if you want to implement something like that,” Stauss said.

Plassmeyer described two community policing programs that have been successful in other states: Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) and the Safety Training and Resources (STAR) initiative. The idea behind the programs, Plassmeyer said, is to get social workers involved with calls police officers would normally respond to. The first step toward making that happen, Plassmeyer said, is developing relationships with service providers.

“With people that have been doing this for years, those relationships are hard to figure out, so it’s not always an easy path,” Plassmeyer said. “It will be difficult.”

Plassmeyer said police officers are often the first point of contact for those experiencing homelessness, drug abuse and mental health issues. When social workers respond to the calls, either on a team with police officers or on their own, it reduces the burden on the legal and jail systems, Plassmeyer said. He described how CAHOOTS works, saying the response team includes an EMT and mental health professional. There are no police officers on that response team, Plassmeyer said.

“They’re able to divert those calls,” Plassmeyer said.

The best alternative policing method, Plassmeyer said, starts with analyzing which 911 calls can be covered by social workers.

“If you can actually get that person in to dispatch, what we’re seeing … is that’s the best way to go,” Plassmeyer said. “Then, you can just divert the calls. But not every community can afford to have a separate team … that doesn’t involve the police officer.”

The programs are most successful when everyone believes in the mission behind it, Plassmeyer said.

“You need to have buy-in from officers on the force,” Plassmeyer said. “If there’s not buy-in … it’s going to be harder. I’m not sure how big your force is here in Eureka Springs, but … it might be all about community enforcement.”

When social workers respond to 911 calls, Stauss said, research has shown that chronic calls decrease. That takes a burden off of police officers, Stauss said, who have to respond to the same caller again and again. Stauss emphasized the importance of having someone on the crisis team who has struggled with homelessness, drug abuse or mental health issues.

“It helps provide that support they need,” Stauss said. “Providing that support for that particular individual really helps improve the next incident … that may occur.”

Stauss said the CAHOOTS model has existed since the 1990s, saying research from that program has saved more than $6 million a year in medical services. During the first six months of the STAR program in Colorado, Stauss said, crisis teams responded to 740 calls with zero arrests.

It’s expensive to have a crisis response team, Stauss said, but there are several grants available. Stauss said a city in Oregon spent more than $1 million on alternative policing programs in 2018, with none of the money coming from grants.

“They believe the benefits … outweigh the costs,” Stauss said.

The school of social work has provided an intern to the Fayetteville Police Department, Stauss said, to gather information on what a crisis response team program would look like locally. The idea is to figure out what works and what doesn’t, Stauss said.

Stauss and Plassmeyer then answered questions from the council and Eureka Springs police chief Brian Young. Council member Bill Ott asked for Stauss to give “a scenario or a situation where one of these teams would go out” and Stauss said a good example is someone passed out in a public park.

“The team might be called to go in and evaluate them if they can provide support,” Stauss said.

Council member Harry Meyer asked how the local dispatch system runs and Young said the city has its own 24-hour dispatch. Young then asked Stauss and Plassmeyer how crisis response teams are different from Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers. The city has two of those officers on call, Young said, as mandated by the state of Arkansas.

“What people are trying to do when they’re moving to these other models … is to free up police officers to do the public safety mission,” Plassmeyer said. “We’re not here today to say you should do a specific thing. We’re just saying there’s models out there. If CIT within the police department is what makes sense in this community, then that’s what makes sense and that’s fine.”

Mayor Butch Berry thanked Stauss and Plassmeyer for the presentation and the council moved on to agenda setting for the next meeting. Council member Laura Jo Smole said she’d like to have a “broad” discussion of the City Advertising and Promotion Commission.

“I would really suggest at this point because of the lawsuit, this might not be a good time to bring that up and all discussion of the CAPC might be held off because of that,” Berry said. “Let’s wait to see what the results are. I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I think at this point we’d be better off to not get into it.”

The council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, April 12, at The Aud.

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