Madison Mayor looks to add alternative mental health crisis response program to 2021 budget

MADISON, Wis. — Calling 911 typically dispatches a police squad, fire truck and an ambulance. But Madison leaders are looking into an alternate response that could cut down the types of calls police respond to.

At Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s last weekly press briefing, she announced that she sent a letter to congress to support a federal CAHOOTS Act.

“The CAHOOTS Act is named after the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, OR, which mobilizes two person teams consisting of a paramedic or an EMT and a crisis worker,” Rhodes-Conway said. “They have substantial training and experience in trauma-informed de-escalation and harm-reduction techniques and they respond to a range of behavioral health crises.”

Rhodes-Conway says this would result in better outcomes for callers and would lift these types of calls from police and would save taxpayers money along the way.

Madison Interim Police Chief Vic Wahl responded to this idea saying: “We are generally supportive of exploring this concept and think it is a good idea to do the pilot program next year.  However, it is not at all clear how this might impact MPD’s workload just yet. The municipalities that have similar teams/programs all have worked very closely with police, and there are a number of statutory provisions that require police involvement with certain mental health crises.”

MPD currently partners with Journey Mental Health. They even have their own mental health unit with some of Journey’s professionals embedded with their team which they say diverts people away from the criminal justice system as much as possible.

Theresa Bednarek, the manager of the emergency services unit at Journey Mental Health, feels the CAHOOTS program would be good to have, but not to replace police.

“There are some situations that call for police involvement and others that aren’t,” Bednarek said.

She said in situations where there is an imminent threat to safety or weapons involved, there should be police presence there because most mental health crisis workers aren’t trained to handle that. But unless there is that immediate danger, Bednarek said, “That piece needs to be figured out and then that will lead to the most appropriate response. There’s a role for all of the models to best serve the needs and to really sort out in this instance we don’t want police, we really just want a peer or a mental health specialist on their own.”

Rhodes-Conway said she has planned for some type of CAHOOTS program in her 2021 budget which will be discussed at tonight’s city council meeting. She said Congressman Marc Pocan has signed on as a sponsor and she’s hoping state senators will sign on as sponsors too.