First response to mental health crisis should be compassion, not cops

First response to mental health crisis should be compassion, not cops

By Taun Hall and Cat Brooks

I never imagined dialing 911 would result in my son being shot to death in front of our home. I just needed some help working with him as his mental health had worsened.

I regret that call everyday. I cannot go back and change what happened. But I can demand that we radically restructure how we respond to mental health crises. We can do better.

My son, Miles Hall, isn’t the first person in a mental health crisis to be killed after family members called 911 for help. Nationwide, at least 1 in 4 fatal law enforcement encounters involves an individual with mental illness. Half of all law enforcement homicides ends the life of an individual with severe psychiatric disease.

I wasn’t familiar with these statistics. We felt safe calling 911 because the police knew Miles. They had even assisted our family in getting him safely hospitalized in 2018. I thought they would again treat him with compassion and care because he was ill and needed help.

My son was in distress and he was gunned down. He had not been threatening and the officers were not in danger. The officers who killed my son are now under criminal investigation. Absurdly, these officers are still allowed to stay on active duty during the investigation.

I now know personally what the data makes clear, police are not adequately trained to deal with people in mental health crisis. The Crisis Intervention Teams (C.I.T) found in most departments across the country only requires 8-15 hours of training. Mental health workers receive thousands of hours of training for their licensing.

Originally, C.I.T was designed to train and deploy a small group of officers passionate about community mental health. After increased deaths of people in crisis at the hands of police, law enforcement agencies across the country implemented mandatory C.I.T. training for all officers. The result: more deaths by police of community members in distress.

It’s more logical and compassionate to meet a mental health crisis with a mental health first responder, not an armed police officer. Police presence often exacerbates mental and emotional states by triggering preexisting fears or memories of incarceration, police violence or involuntary hospitalization.

Humane response is working in Sweden. In 2015, Stockholm started test-driving an ambulance devoted entirely to mental health care. It looks like a regular ambulance on the outside, but instead of stretchers, it’s got cozy seats perfect for a therapy session on wheels. During its first year, the ambulance was requested 1,580 times and attended to 1,254 cases. That’s about 3.4 cases per day.

Even in the U.S, a few departments are trying something different. Police in Eugene, Oregon have partnered with CAHOOTS, a non-profit. The organization handled 17% of the 96,115 calls for service made to Eugene police last year. It should be noted that Eugene residents are primarily caucasion – leaving their model void of an adequate racial analysis. In Oakland, the city has approved a $40,000 budget to investigate a mental health first responder model with a plan to launch a pilot next year. While a step in the right direction, it’s not ambitious enough.

No model in the U.S. goes far enough. As a society we are conditioned to utilize law enforcement as the first responder to every social ill. We cannot police our way out of mental health crisis. We can formulate humane, resourced responses that rely on the expertise of mental health experts and committed community members. Substantial portions of police department budgets can be redirected to fully staffed 24/7 mental health departments and implementation of a trauma-informed response model.

In this model, police should not be involved unless asked by mental health responders as a last resort. It should support people through quality follow up and on-going care regardless of their ability to pay. It must intersect with social welfare organizations that provide housing, substance abuse prevention and treatment, continuing education and job placement. Teams should be staffed with impacted community members, medical and mental health professionals. These programs cannot be established as public/private models but rather as public agencies. Finally, people living with mental health issues and families that are survivors of police violence related to mental health response should be leading, developing, and monitoring this model.

Too many families are living with the guilt and horror of requesting help and receiving violence. Currently the only way to help a person who is mentally ill and doesn’t recognize their sickness is to get them hospitalized. To get a non voluntary hospitalization (5150), a person must be determined a threat to themselves or others. This has to be done using police assistance.

That was our situation when we tried to help Miles during his mental crisis. There was no other option. Miles would be alive today if we didn’t have to rely on untrained officers to help my son. How can we count on the police when they overreact and shoot to kill? They betrayed our family when we trusted them at our most vulnerable. As the numbers of people living with mental health issues in America continues to grow, we must begin to intervene in humane ways with new models rooted in transformative justice and repartive approaches.

Miles Hall didn’t have to die. No one else does either.

Taun Hall is the mother of Miles Hall. Cat Brooks is executive director of The Justice Teams Network

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