Why we need to rethink policing in mental health crises
Continuing to require police officers to respond to mental health crises perpetuates a system that is both ineffective and dangerous, Zellie Thomas writes. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)
Instead of safely addressing mental health crises, police involvement often leads to injury and death. People experiencing a mental health crisis need to be met with support and care, and not excessive force and violence.
If we don’t take immediate action to divert mental health crisis calls away from police and toward trained mental health professionals, we will continue to see young Black men and women in this country become hashtags instead of elders.
The stark reality of police violence against individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis cannot be ignored. Studies have confirmed what many of us have known for too long – that those experiencing such crises are disproportionately represented in the number of people killed by police. The latest figures, revealed by the Washington Post’s comprehensive database, are nothing short of harrowing: More than 1,700 people who were experiencing a mental health crisis have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement since 2016.
As the troubling data continues to mount, it becomes increasingly clear that the intersection of mental health and policing is a deadly one — especially if you are Black or brown.
On March 3, Najee Seabrooks, a member of the Paterson Healing Collective, was fatally shot by the Paterson police. Seabrooks, who was dedicated to violence intervention, had made a 911 call to report that he was in the midst of a mental health crisis.
On Sept. 1, 2012, Saulo Del Rosario, a 39-year-old man with a history of epileptic seizures and mental illness, locked his bedroom door and refused to allow family members to enter. After Del Rosario’s family called 911 for help, Paterson police officers responded to his home and eventually confronted him inside the apartment. Equipped with anti-ballistic shields, the officers shot him dead, saying he approached them with a hammer.
Afterward, Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale said the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office had conducted a “thorough review” of the Del Rosario incident and concluded the shooting was justified, adding, “We stand behind the outcome.”
Justifying the killing of someone who is in a mental state of distress — instead of providing them with care and support — goes directly against the supposed motto of “protecting and serving.” It raises the question of who exactly law enforcement officials are protecting if their solution to prevent someone from inflicting self-harm is to take their life.
To ensure the protection of all community members, particularly those who are most vulnerable, we must consider alternative solutions that prioritize community-based mental health care and support. The Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, is one such example of community-based mental health care and support.
CAHOOTS is a non-police response team that provides immediate assistance to people experiencing mental health crises, substance abuse issues, and other non-emergency situations. Instead of sending armed police officers to handle these situations, CAHOOTS dispatches trained mental health professionals and EMTs who are better equipped to handle these types of calls.
Evidence-based results indicate that the program has been successful in reducing the number of arrests and hospitalizations related to mental health crises, while also reducing the burden on law enforcement and emergency medical services. According to a report by the Oregon Health Authority, CAHOOTS responded to 24,000 calls in 2020, and only 150 of those calls required police backup.
The CAHOOTS program’s success has prompted its emulation in various cities nationwide. However, in New Jersey, governmental authorities are financing initiatives that combine mental health professionals with law enforcement personnel, as opposed to deploying solely mental health professionals and EMTs.
If we do not urgently prioritize the allocation of resources toward non-carceral crisis response models, we risk further harm and trauma to those experiencing mental health crises, and we perpetuate a system that is both ineffective and dangerous. The public can never feel safe if a model of public safety does not ensure the safety of the most vulnerable.
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