It’s one of the few areas where mental health professionals and law enforcement officials actually agree: armed police shouldn’t be the first responders in a mental health crisis. Far too often police are called upon to handle a situation that should be managed by well-equipped healthcare workers who have been trained in mental health issues. Not only is it safer for the person having the health crisis and the police, but it’s also proven to be a far more effective method of de-escalation.
Now, in the wake of a growing movement to reform the police, there are growing calls to phase out police responses to these health crises. In fact, some cities have already started making the switch and the impacts of these policy changes are expected to save lives.
Mental health calls are an area where encounters with law enforcement can further escalate the situation.
Officers, even those who have been trained on crisis intervention, are often not well equipped to deal with mental health emergencies. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, a truly staggering figure.
“The mental health system is largely broken across the country. We’ve tried to paper over it by funding law enforcement,” John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, told Bloomberg.
The national debate over how to improve policing has in part centered on how to prevent mental health calls from escalating into violent confrontations with police. But currently, in most cities across the country, police officers and emergency medical technicians respond to nearly all 911 calls involving a mental health issue, regardless of whether there is a risk of violence.
The call for change comes in the wake of several high-profile incidents involving police.
In September, two major incidents shook communities across the country. First came the release of video showing the death of Daniel Prude in police custody in Rochester, New York, and the October police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia. Both men were having mental health crises that police were called in to handle.
Meanwhile, the cost of transporting people with severe mental illness is estimated at $918 million a year, according to a survey of law enforcement agencies cited in an August report by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
Cities from Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon are attempting to take a more holistic approach.
Cities around the United States are implementing programs to reduce potentially deadly interactions between police and people in crisis. Police departments have been under increased scrutiny after the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police. Officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, have all taken steps in their emergency response systems to avoid potentially deadly escalations.
And now, the biggest city in the nation is taking similar steps. New York City is creating new teams to respond to emergency mental health calls instead of police, as part of a pilot program that will launch next year.
The teams will consist of EMS health workers and mental health crisis workers that will be dispatched through the city’s 911 system. Police officers would be dispatched as backup in cases where a subject has a weapon or is threatening violence. Currently, New York police officers and emergency medical technicians respond to nearly all 911 calls involving a mental health issue, regardless of whether there is a risk of violence.
Many of these city’s programs are modeled after Eugene, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out in The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, which has been in place since 1989. In 2019, it responded to 24,000 calls for service, less than 1% of which required an additional police response.
Both police unions and mental health professionals are optimistic about the changes.
Matt Kudish, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City (NAMI-NYC), told CNN the program sounds like a step in the right direction, but he would like to see a program that does not involve police at all.
And the police union has their own feelings on the proposal. “The NYPD looks forward to participating in this important pilot program. The participation of mental health professionals is a long awaited improvement in the city’s initial response to people in crisis,” said Police Commissioner Dermot Shea in a news release. “Our officers applaud the intervention by health professionals in these non violent cases and as always stand ready to assist.”
But simply launching a pilot program, or increasing training on its own, won’t fix the system. Responders of any kind need options beyond sending individuals in crisis to jail or the hospital and hopefully under these new policies, we’ll finally see these much-needed changes.