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Re-Imagined Policing Helps Protect Those With Mental Illness

Crisis management training is far more effective than uniforms or weapons.

As activists continue to push municipalities to defund or unbundle the police, questioning why law enforcement is tasked with responsibilities well beyond enforcing the law, our society can benefit from contemplating how to change the way we respond to individuals experiencing mental health crises.

It's time. Our system of response has long been to call 911, which often taps police as first responders despite a dire lack of training in safe, appropriate mental health intervention.

Too often, this leads to the unnecessary arrest of individuals—men and women whose diagnoses make it difficult to ask for help or seek their own treatment. Instead of receiving needed care, they’re incarcerated and subjected to the trauma of imprisonment. In the worst cases, mentally ill individuals are seriously injured or killed by police officers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a mental health attorney, I myself have led private psychiatric interventions and know first-hand that violence and arrest are not predetermined. Our team of experts—myself, a psychiatrist, a mental health case manager, and a security detail—works together to ensure the best possible outcomes for persons in distress. Without uniforms or weapons, we ensure legal entry into a home, evaluate the individual and determine whether hospitalization is necessary. We only call the police if he or she will not voluntarily seek treatment. It is a last resort.

Similar models are beginning to take hold. Across the country, many communities now benefit from Mobile Crisis Response Teams, which offer same-day interventions from on-call mental health professionals. These individuals are trained to respond to crises in a manner that is least damaging and more likely to result in a therapeutic outcome.

To continue serving as the first line of defense to mental health crises, police departments have real work to do. They must bring in licensed, experienced mental health professionals to provide comprehensive, ongoing training focused on mental health and crisis intervention. This must begin with new recruits and repeat annually at a minimum. More extensive trainings should be provided to dedicated mental health units who intervene specifically when the person in question is known to have a mental illness. Ideally, such units would not just have police trained in mental health, but also mental health professionals who, together with officers, respond to calls.

Just as crucially, police departments must win back community trust. Many people are hesitant to call 911 for help with a mentally ill loved one due to fear that he or she will be viewed as a criminal threat—hurt, killed or incarcerated instead of directed to treatment. Such mistrust deprives communities of resources that could provide significant and much-needed assistance. It also makes communities less supportive of funding initiatives to help police departments evolve—a paradox as improvements are often only possible with funding.

For the good of society, including the most vulnerable citizens, police departments must listen to the voices of mental health advocates, including family and friends of those with mental illness.