Councilmember Banks Endorses OPPRC’s Proposed “Help Not Handcuffs” Program

Photo courtesy of Danae Columbus

City Councilmember Jay Banks pledged Saturday to support “Help Not Handcuffs,” a non-police crisis response alternative currently being advocated by the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC). “You have a partner in me,” Banks told a standing-room only crowd including many District B residents. “I am committed to doing what I can to make this happen.” 

Through the end of June, OPPRC and other partners are holding a series of solutions-focused facilitated conversations called Lean and Share: ‘Supporting Mental Health Crises Without Police’ in council districts throughout the city. 

After listening to the hour-long presentation, Banks told participants that “Help Not Handcuffs” would not solve all the problems but could address a tremendous amount of them. “There are people out there that need to be addressed by the police,” Banks explained. “Help Without Handcuffs” would be a practical solution and “better use our time and tax dollars on those who need intervention.” 

Banks said the program made sense. Though Banks admitted that he could not speak for the mayor or the police chief, both of whom he described as having “rational minds and good hearts,” Banks said that no one who understood the program should oppose it. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.  

Banks urged attendees who resided in other council districts to contact their councilmembers. “You can make a difference.” Banks also praised OPPRC Executive Director Sade Dumas for building community support for the project. “I’m glad we have more people in the fight.”

Also in attendance was Denise Chandler of the City’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination. “I’m happy to be here and I want everyone to know that Mayor Cantrell is very excited about this program,” Chandler said.        

New Orleans is one of many cities where police respond to calls regarding mental health emergencies. Sometimes the person having the emergency is even incarcerated for a lack of better options. “In a city where jailing away structural problems takes priority over addressing residents’ basic human needs, the option of a safe alternative to calling law enforcement for mental health emergencies is past due,” according to OPPRC’s website.

Photo courtesy of Danae Columbus

Utilizing a “Help Not Handcuffs” alternative, emergency mental health crisis calls would be answered by a specially trained, medically-certified care-centered response unit who would work to defuse the situation without handcuffs, a taser or gun. The goal would be to stabilize the person onsite. “The time to put our resources towards supporting trained professionals who will help us solve a mental health crisis with a stethoscope instead of handcuffs is now,” Dumas continued.

OPPRC’s experts believe that police interactions during mental health crises are financially costly, mentally draining and physically harmful. A November 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that 20% to 50% of fatal encounters with law enforcement involved an individual with a mental illness.

OPPRC also claims that the majority of calls to NOPD which are non-violent or non-criminal which may have involved individuals with mental health crises. Of the 450,000 calls for service the NOPD received in 2020, 8,693 included a mental health signal. More than 35% of patrol officers have completed the available crisis intervention training. 

Current statistics show that only 20% of people who are served by the NOPD’s Crisis Intervention Team are stabilized on site. In 2016, the majority of patients (60%) were involuntarily committed. Every year 50% of the people are handcuffed or restrained.  

“Training officers to respond to these calls costs money and time that officers could spend solving serious crimes,” said Dumas. In addition, people who are in need of help are dehumanized and cycled through the criminal legal system or the psychiatric hospital system – both of which are unnecessary in many cases. “Jail and hospital capacity is stretched thin with only a police response to people in crisis,” she continued.

Alternative programs are already in place in several cities across the U.S. including Denver, Austin, Los Angeles, Portland, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis and Eugene, Oregon. Respite Centers are offering similar services in New York City.   

In Eugene, the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) program provides a 24/7 Mobile response team staffed with social workers and mental health professional who provide on-site support and connect to other long-term services. 

Approximately one-fifth or 17,000 of Eugene’s calls for service are handled by CAHOOTS. These calls include welfare checks, transport, suicidal, intoxication, traffic hazards, disorderly, criminal trespass and domestic disputes. CAHOOTS leaders estimate an annual costs savings of $8.5 million. 

Denver’s STAR (Support Team Assistance Response) and Dallas’ RIGHT Care Program both are able to point to numerous successes. OPPRC estimates that a CAHOOTS-like program in New Orleans would costs between $5 million and $10 million and might save the City of New Orleans $10.8 million annually. 

Numerous attendees spoke about their personal experiences with police officers during crisis calls and the experiences of family and friends. It was clear from these heart-wrenching testimonies that a problem exists that must be solved.   


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