The Honolulu Police Commission is officially requesting the formation of a task force to consider reallocating police funds and responsibilities to social service agencies when it comes to calls about homelessness and mental illness.

A commission subcommittee that examined the police department budget presented that recommendation earlier this month, along with encouraging HPD to limit overtime expenses. On Wednesday, the full commission unanimously voted to submit both recommendations to Mayor Rick Blangiardi and City Council Budget Chair Calvin Say.

HPD officers assist a homeless man after he fell off his wheelchair near Kapahulu Avenue. October 19, 2020
Behavioral health calls make up 10% to 30% of HPD’s call volume, according to the department. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

At the commission meeting, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard expressed support for the idea.

“We’re trying to get the social services to take over the homeless issues,” she said. “They should be the ones because they’re the experts.”

The commission wants the task force to explore the possibility of a new division focused on interacting with people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, substance addition or domestic violence. Mental health professionals could work alongside rank-and-file officers specifically trained to work with these populations, the subcommittee suggested.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, however, has cautioned against that model because it says social service providers are better trained than law enforcement to handle behavioral health issues.

On Wednesday, Ballard said she agrees.

“This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime (occurrence), but I agree with what the ACLU said that we should not be creating a whole separate unit, a formal unit for addressing the homelessness,” she said. “Because I think the police interaction should becoming less and less and the social services becoming more and more.”

Police should still respond to cases involving violence, the chief said.

Considering pandemic-related budget constraints though, Ballard said creating a new program that requires additional personnel is “probably not going to happen.”

Commission Chair Shannon Alivado said the task force could explore setting up a staff that is “totally separate” from the police department.

Blangiardi’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the subcommittee’s recommendations.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard sits in the limited audience during Mayor Blangiardi’s first State of Honolulu speech.
Social workers are the “experts” who should handle behavioral health calls, Chief Susan Ballard said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

However, his new Housing Director, Anton Krucky, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the administration is interested in having social service providers, instead of police, respond to calls involving people in crisis. The administration hasn’t proposed any funding for such a program in its budget proposal, though.

Cities across the country are embracing the idea of sending unarmed social workers and other non-police first responders to calls about behavioral health issues. The concept was pioneered over 30 years ago by a program called CAHOOTS in Eugene, Ore. and has gained momentum in the last year amid protests demanding police reform. Advocates in Honolulu have voiced an interest in setting up a program on Oahu.

The CAHOOTS team is embedded in the area’s 911 system. It’s designed to de-escalate conflict, make social service referrals and transport people to shelters, stabilization sites or medical facilities. One of the main goals is to reduce unnecessary trips to jail and emergency rooms.

The White Bird Clinic, which runs CAHOOTS, says it handles about 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s call volume every year, although EPD says it’s likely closer to 8%. The organization estimates it saves the police department an estimated $8.5 million annually.

A program like CAHOOTS in Honolulu has the potential to lighten the Honolulu Police Department’s workload. Behavioral health calls make up 10% to 30% of HPD’s call volume, according to the department.

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