Phoenix spent $15 million to put more social workers on the streets; how’s it working?

Phoenix's program that puts more social workers on the streets is understaffed and the city wants more money.
Updated: Sep. 21, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Police shootings can escalate quickly, often with deadly consequences. The Phoenix Police Department has received a lot of criticism for how they’ve responded to certain calls, especially those involving the mentally ill. Two years ago, the city acknowledged that and allocated $15 million to expand a program that puts more social workers on the streets to respond to some of those calls. But as Arizona’s Family Investigates found, they’ve struggled to scale up.

When a man throwing rocks at Phoenix Police last September didn’t comply, the officer opened fire. The family of the man killed, Ali Osman, said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Then there’s the incident from January of this year. Police first tased Cosme Medina Nunez, armed with a pair of scissors. After he didn’t follow commands, officers shot and killed him. His family, too, said he had mental health issues.

These are just two examples of recent police shootings in the city. So far this year, there have been 23 such shootings, nearing last year’s total of 24, the highest since 2020.

At a City Council meeting back in March 2021, neighbors spoke out, saying something had to change. “Our city police department is out of control,” one neighbor said. “The people in the city are dying in the streets at the hands of police,” another neighbor told city officials.

Calls for reforming the Phoenix Police Department are nothing new. But in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020 and the scrutiny that followed, city leaders chose to go in a different direction. They opted to expand an existing program within the Phoenix Fire Department known as the Community Assistance Program or CAP. “It is crucial that this program has adequate funding,” an advocate told City Council during a meeting in May 2021.

City leaders allocated CAP $15 million to turn what had been a small volunteer program into a 24/7 operation with its own dispatchers. “I take 911 emergency calls for people who are having a mental health crisis,” Jessica Carpenter-Swain, a CAP dispatcher, said.

CAP is based in the Fire Department’s 911 Call Center. Social workers work in two-person teams. Arizona’s Family Investigates rode along with the program’s social workers who respond to non-emergency calls. “We’re not here to get you in trouble or anything,” one of their workers told a man they were called to check on. “We’re here to support him. Can we talk to you, just for a second?” the CAP employee said. “No,” the man responded.

The idea is to connect those experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse problems with resources. “We’re not going to bother you. Let us get you a blanket and Gatorade,” another CAP employee explained. But the reality is not everyone wants that help.

The CAP team is also proactive. When they don’t have a call, they stop to check in on people. “We’re just here to provide any resources,” a CAP employee explained to an unhoused man they stopped to help.

Arizona’s Family Investigates asked Mayor Kate Gallego about how CAP is used. “We’ve still seen officer-involved shootings are up. Police are still responding to a lot of those mental health calls. “Do you see how CAP works changing or how do you go about addressing those needs?” our Amy Cutler asked the Mayor. “When there’s a call that a crime is being committed or there’s an active weapon, we really feel that armed officers have to take the lead for safety,” Mayor Gallego responded.

CAP doesn’t have lights or sirens on their vans and they’re required to follow all traffic laws. The Program Director, DC Ernst said that has its benefits. “We’re not in any rush, so we can take that time to build that rapport,” Ernst said.

Sarah Hernandez, another CAP employee, explained the response they received from police when they arrived on the scene. “They are so happy to have us, they really are,” she explained. Hernandez has been with CAP since 2020. We asked Hernandez about police responding to calls involving the mentally ill and why CAP is better suited. “I think we are able to de-escalate a situation a little bit. I don’t want to say better, but we can handle it a little differently,” she said.

But two years in, we’ve uncovered the program is still struggling to expand. They only recently started operating around the clock to cover the entire city. What had been expected to take 18 to 24 months has taken a lot longer. Phoenix confirmed they’d only hired 78 of the 130 positions they’re budgeted for. “There’s huge demand for these professionals and we’re all hiring at the same time,” Mayor Gallego said.

At hiring events in March, the City managed to add 48 new employees to CAP, some right on the spot. We pressed the mayor on the $15 million spent on the program and her message to taxpayers. “There are amazing success stories out there,” she said.

Ernst said they’re working as fast as they can to expand, but coming up with the proper protocols and procedures takes time. Phoenix will be asking taxpayers to invest more in CAP come November. It’s part of the General Obligation or GO Bond. That would include adding CAP units to more fire stations, which they said would allow them to respond to calls faster.

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