Meet the Community Health and Assistance Team (CHAT)
An alternative response to 911 calls
Let’s chat. When you hear that phrase, what comes to mind? Hopefully, it’s a casual conversation with a friend – that is the premise behind the name of Modesto Police Department’s new alternative response program. The Community Health and Assistance Team, or CHAT, reflects a key component of what the outreach workers assigned to the team do; chat with people, understand where they are in their lives, and assist them in overcoming any immediate crises or barriers they are experiencing.
Embracing the concept of using resources other than sworn officers to handle specific calls for service, the police department began exploring the idea of creating city homeless outreach specialists in the summer of 2020. A partnership with the City’s Community and Economic Development Department resulted in funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Emergency Solutions Grant for four full-time Homeless Outreach Specialists for this exact purpose.
From inception, they have worked closely with the police department’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team, known as HEART, to focus on the immediate support, intervention and connection to services of people experiencing homelessness. Sergeant Mike Hammond oversees the department’s HEART team and ensures our outreach specialists feel supported in their roles. Sergeant Hammond said, “We often deal with broken people, and many of individuals our homeless outreach specialists talk to every day are in crisis, struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse, or both.”
The early success our outreach specialists have had in building relationships and working with individuals to accept shelter and services has been promising. Police Chief Brandon Gillespie said, “Our department is committed to using the right tool for the job. Utilizing outreach specialists as the lead contact for certain calls for service not only uses a more appropriate resource but often lessens the anxiety of those contacted because they aren’t dealing with someone in a police uniform.”
Gillespie added, “I have full confidence in this program, and knowing how successful this team is going to be, I felt it was appropriate to highlight what they do with an official name that reflects their overall mission and the importance of what they do.” The Chief said the trust the CHAT team has already built within the homeless population is strong, but if the team cannot handle an issue or resolve a problem, the department could use police officers to take enforcement action. Gillespie stated, “Our priority is to lead with outreach when we can and use enforcement as an accountability tool when other options don’t work.” He said ensuring Modesto residents continue to enjoy a high quality of life is important. Utilizing a program like CHAT does not mean the police department will ignore illegal activity or not use enforcement to solve problems when appropriate.
Chief Gillespie said he plans to expand the duties of the CHAT team in the future to go beyond only focusing on homelessness and include helping anyone in crisis and in need of mental health or social service help. The CHAT team will be sent to calls for service through the 911 communications center, where calls will be vetted for safety issues to ensure CHAT is the appropriate resource to send.
Continuing to explore alternative models to solving some of our most complex problems remains a priority for the City. The CHAT program will give us another tool to help us engage the most vulnerable in our community, and get them the resources needed. This will also allow us to free up officers to respond to high priority calls thereby ensuring the safety of our community. We look forward to seeing the impact the CHAT program has, and we will provide periodic updates as the program progresses.
Introduction to CHAT (Video)