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Opinion: A fatal force

December 10, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Kee Tobar, a disability justice attorney at Community Legal Services.
Before there was Walter Wallace Jr., there was Wallace Wilder of Alabama. Alfred Olango of California. Brandon Roberts of Delaware. Lavall Hall of Florida. Anthony Hill of Georgia.  Jonathan Jefferson and Michael Noel of Louisiana. Ricardo Muñoz of Pennsylvania. Daniel Prude of New York. Arther McAfee of Texas. Marcus David Peters of Virginia.  Kevin Ruffin of Wisconsin. Countless others.

All of these stories are nuanced, but they all combine law enforcement with people experiencing mental health crises, with deadly results. And they are not alone: 1,331 people living with severe mental illness have been killed by the police in the U.S. since 2015. More than 30% of those killed were people of color. While Walter Wallace Jr. has opened the figurative eyes of Philadelphians to the violence that people living with severe mental illness may suffer at the hands of the police, this is not a new story.

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We cannot continue to pretend that the systems we have established to help persons in mental health crisis, and loved ones of persons in crisis, is working. It is time that we acknowledge that policing culture and policy, as we know it today, is incompatible with the tenets of providing an appropriate public health response to persons experiencing a mental health crisis. That is not to say that all police are bad. But that is to say what we already intuitively know: police officers are not mental health experts and forcing them to participate in this role by themselves is, at the very least unsuitable, and at the very worse deadly.

Here are the facts: nearly four in every 100 adults in America have a severe mental illness. These individuals generate nearly one in 10 calls for police service. Furthermore, people with mental illness make up a disproportionate number of those killed while being approached or stopped by law enforcement in the community. People with severe mental illness make up one in four of all fatal police encounters.

People with severe mental illness make up one in four of all fatal police encounters.

This means the risk of being killed during a police incident is 16 times greater for individuals with severe mental illness than for other civilians stopped by the police.

Given these numbers, the most immediate and practical strategy for providing a better mental health response to persons in crisis is to reduce the encounters between on-duty law enforcement and people living with severe mental illness.

At the very least, all officers should receive training concerning how to spot and react to mental illness conditions and symptoms, de-escalation tactics, and relevant community mental health resources. However, since the 1980s, we have, nationally, tried to train our way out of police-involved killings of people in mental health crises.

Many police forces have relied heavily on the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) — Memphis model, a model that is promising, though not without limitations. This model provides forty hours of training to active-duty police officers on mental illness conditions, symptoms, treatments, and de-escalation tactics.  The model further calls for building formal partnerships with psychiatric outpatient facilities that prioritize officer drop offs, and creating department wide mental health policies.

However, most police forces only undertake the training portion of the model, and many officers aren’t trained at all, mostly due to cost. At a time when nearly one in 10 calls for police services involve mental health crises, we must make a new calculation and invest fully in mental health training and other policing responses.

One model that works particularly well is implementation of Mobile Crisis Teams, of which three currently exist.

Along with teams in Eugene, Oregon and Oakland, California, Philadelphia has its own team, the West Philadelphia Consortium, a mental health crisis response center that had previous interactions with Walter Wallace, Jr. The Consortium responded to 1,219 emergency calls in 2019 without a formal partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department.

As a critical next step, the Philadelphia Police Department must formalize a relationship with crisis mobile teams in Philadelphia, with City support for community-based health services, as part of a process of transferring of key duties concerning Philadelphians’ mental health crises, except in instances where the mental health expert deems a police officer necessary.

The 1960s and ‘70s saw the deinstitutionalization movement, in which we failed to fund and build community mental health centers to replace hospitals, and then instead decided to place law enforcement at the front lines of mental health — often against their own objections.

We decided as a society that creating a mental health to jail or death pipeline is our best option.

It is not.

There are alternatives. Investments in an alternative model must be made, because continuing to rely on our current system is to continue to force an option that has proven time and time again to be flawed, and fatal.

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