We can’t expect cops to manage mental health crises

The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

For decades, American cities have cherished the notion that armed cops are the obvious first responders for a mental health crisis. Faced with someone parading naked through the streets in the throes of a mental breakdown, emergency 911 dispatchers send the police — because they have no one else. Ditto for those on drugs, or living rough, or panhandling, or even sometimes just plain poor. Many end up in jail or a hospital emergency room — and nearly one-quarter of those killed by US police in recent years had mental illness, according to a Washington Post database.

The issue came to a head last year after a black man in mental crisis died following an encounter with police. Now, cops across the country are experimenting with ways to get officers off the front lines of trying to solve America’s post-pandemic mental health crisis so they can tackle that other crisis — the rise in violent crime. Several cities have responded to pressure to “defund the police” by diverting public funds so that social workers can respond to calls that cops should not be handling in the first place.

St Louis, the Midwest city where police in the suburb of Ferguson killed Michael Brown, a black teenager, in 2014, is pairing up cops with clinicians to handle mental health-related calls. St Louis officials say no police officers lost their jobs to pay for the “purple shirts”, the mental health workers who partner with an armed police officer on calls where mental health could be a factor. The programme is budgeted at $1.2m this year but St Louis has allocated a further $5m in pandemic relief funds for future years, which will be used to fund cops and clinicians.

“The police are not the fix-all for everything, we have to get out of that mindset”, says police lieutenant Leonard Day Jr, a 27-year veteran. Day is the African-American commander of the St Louis Crisis Response Unit, which runs two shifts of cops and clinicians teams each day. Armed cops are still first on the scene in St Louis — but they clear out as soon as it’s safe for a “purple shirt” to take over.

On an unseasonably warm Midwest morning earlier this month, Day took me on one such call, after the 911 dispatcher reported a “disturbance” between neighbours. One resident was making it a daily habit to call 911: the cops felt they couldn’t resolve this alone.

Regular police turned up first, but within five minutes they left the stage to Randall, an African-American mental health clinician, his purple shirt stretched over a bulletproof vest. He settled himself comfortably on a wrought-iron garden chair to listen to the many and varied grievances of the 57-year-old white complainant — for an hour. It became clear that pandemic isolation, past domestic abuse and mental illness were all part of the story. When we left, Randall was still patiently explaining how to get connected to therapists and other resources.

“People want to be heard, and the police officer often doesn’t have the time to listen,” says Captain Latricia Allen, commander of St Louis North patrol division district 6. She says she hopes the programme will help improve the poor image of the police force.

Other cities are trying different models: my home town of Chicago is piloting the deployment of mental health and paramedic teams, some with police officers. Another route is to send “peer specialists” who have personal experience of mental illness or substance abuse, along with a paramedic. None of these units travel in police cars or wear standard police uniforms.

Tiffany Lacy Clark, chief operating officer of Behavioural Health Response, which provides the clinicians for St Louis’ crisis response teams, says 98 per cent of those helped by the programme since it started in February have been “diverted” from going to jail and 85 per cent have avoided a fruitless trip to hospital.

“We need to come to them with a heart that is open and able to listen, and to leave them with some hope that tomorrow will be better than today,” she says. That’s a far cry from what police normally do. But now — thanks in part to money from federal pandemic relief funds — those who need treatment are being offered help outside the police and justice system.


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