Buck Williams encountered Elizabeth living under a pallet and blanket in an alley in downtown Olympia.
“How you doing, Elizabeth; is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.
When she replied that she was hungry, Williams gave her directions to where she could get a free meal. After a few more minutes of talk, he encouraged her to get a free meal before resuming his walk-around.
A crisis response specialist on the city’s Crisis Response Unit (CRU, pronounced “crew”), Williams and his fellow specialists offer voluntary and confidential assistance with an emphasis on trauma-informed care, de-escalation and harm minimization.
“I like the idea of being able to go out and work with people in the community and maybe help them get to some manner of treatment or stability,” Williams told a reporter from The JOLT as he walked back to a CRU van. Modeled on Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) intervention program begun in 1989 in Eugene, Olympia’s CRU was created in 2019.
Comprising trained civilian responders – instead of police officers – CRU specialists respond to calls concerning individuals who face mental health and substance abuse crises. CRU receives calls for assistance both from 911 dispatch and requests from patrol officers.
“I like supporting law enforcement by helping to take some of the load off their shoulders, so they can do more police work,” continued Williams, who is an original CRU member.
“The police should be free to do the work they signed up to do, and I try to help them out as much as I can and take the calls that I can take,” he added.
As a part of law enforcement, CRU specialists provide mobile response to individuals experiencing problems related to mental health, poverty, substance use and homelessness in Olympia.
“We can be a first-responder to these kinds of episodes, and then we begin to triage them and determine where to send or take individuals for help,” he added.
Moments later, Williams received a call from an individual overwhelmed by a family member's erratic actions. Speaking in a clear and calm voice, Williams told the man how to contact a Designated Crisis Responder (DCR) who could make an on-the-spot assessment and a determination if the family member in crisis needed to be detained for further assessment.
“We cannot detain someone for a mental health assessment,” explained Williams, “but the DCRs have the legal authority to detain people on mental health or substance abuse grounds.”
Some of the services CRU provides are conflict resolution and mediation, grief and loss support, housing referrals, harm reduction, resource connections and referrals, first aid and non-emergency care, and transportation to services.
There are some areas, such as the Percival Creek area and the “Jungle,” where CRU specialists do not go unless the police are on the scene.
“The CRU team will assist police officers when requested based on policies and protocols,” explained Ren Emerson-Beckman, Olympia Police Department’s outreach services coordinator. “CRU typically would not respond to a call within one of these areas without officers on scene, for safety reasons.”
She added that CRU has responded to almost 2,800 calls-for-service so far in 2023 and anticipates that the total number will exceed 3,000 by the end of the year, an all-time high.
Buck indicated that some of the CRU’s interactions are generated by the initiative that CRU specialists take as they are out in the community.
“We can be out driving around or walking through the city, see an individual, stop, and go over to talk with them,” explained Williams. “My conversation with Elizabeth is an example of this. If we need to help out, then we do.”
He added that while CRU specialists are not supposed to do case management work, the nature of his job does lend itself to doing some.
“People want to know that the programs they vote for, the causes they support, are making a difference,” concluded Williams. “I think the CRU team is doing just that.”
CRU operates from 6:20 a.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week.
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