Study finds promise in program pairing cops with mental health experts
Attorney General Matt Platkin said pairing cops with mental health experts is crucial to restoring trust between police and residents. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
A D.C.-based think tank’s analysis of a New Jersey initiative that pairs police with mental health experts found that nearly every call resulted in no arrest or use of force, and with little racial disparities.
But the statistics come from a small sample size, the researcher behind the study stressed, while criminal justice reformers caution that it’s too early to declare the 18-month-old initiative a success.
The findings come as New Jersey grapples with the aftermath of a deadly police shooting in Paterson on March 3, when police killed local activist Najee Seabrooks, whose loved ones say was in the middle of a mental health crisis when police shot him. After Seabrooks’ killing, Attorney General Matthew Platkin took over the city’s police department.
During a 90-minute talk with the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., Monday, Platkin said pairing cops with mental health experts in parts of the state has been crucial to restoring trust that’s been broken between communities and law enforcement.
“The key is listening to the community and forming that partnership so that they’re not learning about a program when a moment of crisis emerges — that there’s buy-in on all sides: law enforcement, the health care responders, community, stakeholders, and ultimately my office,” he said.
New Jersey’s initiative — Arrive Together, which stands for Alternative Responses to Reduce Instances of Violence and Escalation — partners a plainclothes police officer with a mental health counselor or screener from a community organization in an unmarked car during certain mental or behavioral health calls. It launched in Camden County in late 2021 and later expanded to Elizabeth and Linden. It’s expanding to another 10 counties soon.
The Brookings Institute — where Platkin once worked — analyzed 342 calls between December 2021 and January 2023 and had access to police reports and other data.
Arrive Together teams responded to most incidents during the day, and two out of three callers were male, according to the analysis. The average age of callers was 41 years old, and the majority of calls were from 911.
Most callers were Black and Hispanic, at 39% and 35% of calls, respectively, and 26% were white callers. The study found that while racial disparities are prevalent in police uses of force, the data from the program does “not demonstrate any significant differences” between race, gender, and age.
The vast majority of encounters did not result in arrest or use of force, according to the study. The low rate can be attributed to the team’s work to deescalate situations and provide mental health expertise, the study says.
Rashawn Ray, a senior Brookings fellow who wrote the study, highlighted the Arrive Together program as one that can be an example for other states to follow and said it’s crucial to report more uniform data on officers responding and the callers.
“The lack of complete demographic data can actually weaken the case of just how effective the program is at reducing, and in some cases, eradicating racial disparities in policing outcomes,” he said in the study.
Ray suggested Platkin’s office should collect demographic data for officers and counselors who are responding to these calls and ensure people are classified properly. He also urged Platkin to create a coding scheme to track which mental illnesses people may be experiencing and to share more data to compare Arrive Together responses to typical law enforcement calls.
Not everyone is cheering yet. Marleina Ubel of progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective noted that Brookings researchers reviewed data from just a few towns in a densely populated state over 14 months. There needs to be more data to make claims of success, she said.
“It’s really hard to come to these conclusions and make that claim with incomplete data,” she said. “Watching that panel, if I hadn’t read the report, I would assume there’s no evidence of racial bias happening in the ‘Arrive Together’ program, and I think it should be noted that that’s a claim that just can’t be made yet.”
Ubel noted she didn’t hear one person utter the phrase “arrive together” during a community “listening session” hosted by Platkin last week in Paterson. Instead, she said, she heard people demanding Platkin fire police officers involved in Seabrooks’ shooting and calling for less law enforcement response to mental health calls.
“I heard them say there needs to be a lot more action and a lot less talking. I heard them say they want more funding for their own community-led organizations,” she added.
Platkin declined to comment on Seabrooks’ killing during his talk on Monday, but said last week’s event in Paterson demonstrated that trust needs to be rebuilt in the city between residents and cops.
“I think we have a lot of work to do, to listen and develop a program … not just, ‘here’s what they have to say,’ but including the community in designing the program. I’m committed to that, and I think everyone working with us is,” Platkin said.
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