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On Monday, March 7, the Ann Arbor City Council will vote on how to allocate the city’s $24.1 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. The list of possible destinations for the funds has now been narrowed to 13 programs, totaling some $45-50 million. While each proposal has its merits, I especially urge the City Council to spend some of Ann Arbor’s Rescue Plan funds on a pilot program for an unarmed mental health response team. With estimated costs at $2 million, this program would demand less than 10% of the city’s allotted funds.

During my time as a counselor at a local addiction treatment center, I regularly called Washtenaw County’s mental health crisis line on behalf of clients whose symptoms were too acute for our agency to address. While this did not always happen, it was not uncommon for both a social worker and a police officer to be dispatched to the treatment center. In these scenarios, sadly, I would watch as the presence of the latter would kneecap the effectiveness of the former, making it harder for the social worker to win the client’s trust.

This is not to say that I ever witnessed the officers conducting themselves with anything less than professionalism. Rather, it appeared that the mere sight of uniforms, flashing lights and holstered weapons was enough to heighten the client’s distress. And that is not without reason — the Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 25% to 50% of individuals killed by police officers were suffering from severe, untreated mental illness at the time of their death.

This grim statistic attests to a basic fact: police officers are not social workers. Just as social work students are not trained in the use of firearms as part of their formal curricula, police cadets do not take advanced classes in mental health assessment and treatment. Moreover, the training in crisis intervention that police do receive has, at best, a rather limited evidence base for its effectiveness. As for the unconscious bias training that police receive, only one study has been published to date on its effectiveness, the results of which were mixed. All told, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect police officers to practice social work on top of their other day-to-day duties. 

That, simply put, is why I support using Rescue Plan funds to create an unarmed mental health response team in Ann Arbor. Its creation would entrust the performance of certain sensitive tasks — mental health assessment, crisis intervention and referrals, among others — to the very professionals who are trained to perform them.

Now let’s get into the specifics of this potential program. The Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety (or CROS), an organization made up of local faith leaders, social workers, researchers and activists, has publicized their guidelines for how an unarmed response team ought to be designed. In a nutshell, their guidelines would establish a sharp delineation between the work performed by mental health providers and the work performed by police officers. CROS proposes that the city pay an external agency to operate the response team, rather than house the program within the police department. They also urge Ann Arbor to create a new emergency phone number that residents would call specifically for mental health assistance. Additionally, a social worker embedded within the city’s 911 dispatch would be hired to reroute mental-health-related calls best handled by the unarmed team from 911 to this new number.

Some other aspects of CROS’ guidelines are modeled after an unarmed response program that is widely seen as effective: Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. CAHOOTS operates 24/7, sending a two-person team of a social worker and a medic to situations involving mental illness, homelessness and substance intoxication. Once at the scene, CAHOOTS teams provide immediate assessment and crisis intervention, as well as referral and transportation to more intensive services. Its success in meeting Eugene’s acute mental health needs has won CAHOOTS the endorsement of the local police department, who note that they would be responding to 5-8% more calls without the program’s services. And in more recent years, Denver, San Francisco and Olympia, Washington have each cited CAHOOTS when piloting similar approaches to unarmed crisis response.

There is no time like the present for Ann Arbor to follow in these cities’ footsteps. Indeed, public health data show us that the need for mental health services has never been greater than now. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders has increased by a whopping 300% during the pandemic. The same study also found that 12% of adults reported new or increased use of alcohol and other drugs. So as the pandemic rages on, City Council cannot delay in providing a much-needed upgrade to the local mental health infrastructure.

Giving this upgrade its due urgency would also place City Council at the center of a novel political coalition. It speaks volumes that CROS, a majority of City Council members and the chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department have all voiced support for creating an unarmed mental health response team. Few potential policies have such tremendous upside that a police chief and a police reform organization can be so easily brought into agreement. Only the City Council, however, can give this agreement the force of law. City Council members who vote to fund the pilot program would demonstrate their talent for building bridges in the name of the common good. 

But this will only come to fruition, of course, if enough Ann Arbor residents speak up in support of devoting Rescue Plan funds to an unarmed response team. Our next opportunity to do so is on Saturday, Feb. 19, when some City Council members will be holding a collaborative town hall in advance of their decisive vote. They need to know that creating an unarmed response team has the robust support of their constituents. I’ll be there, and I hope you will be, too.

Matt Dargay is a Masters of Social Work student at the University of Michigan and a legislative intern for City Council Member Linh Song. He also chairs the local chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). He can be reached at

Matt Dargay is a Masters of Social Work student at the University of Michigan and a legislative intern for City Council Member Linh Song. He also chairs the local chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). He can be reached at