How to get the cops out of the mental health business

Police in St. Petersburg, Fla., were well aware that Jeffrey Haarsma had mental health issues. Officers had been to the 55-year-old’s home at least 25 times a year before an emergency call on Aug. 7, 2020. But the only officer who responded shot and killed Haarsma, who was unarmed, as he attacked her during an attempted for misdemeanor arrest. While Pinellas County officials later ruled the shooting was justified, they also concluded the call should have been handled as a mental health matter rather than a criminal investigation.

Since that day, there have been nearly 2,000 fatal shootings by police officers in the line of duty. About 1 in 5 involved a police response to someone showing signs of mental illness. It shouldn’t be like this.

Both the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer responding to a 911 call over an alleged counterfeit bill and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, have drawn appropriate attention to police behavior. What about when they are called to deal with non-violent emergencies? How we design our first response systems to deal with emergency events involving mental health and substance abuse deserves similar careful consideration.

At least one-third of emergency calls that the police respond to could instead be safely directed to health-focused emergency responders, such as mental health professionals, paramedics and social workers. Doing so is clearly humane because it provides people in distress with proper health care instead of arrest (or worse). Mental health first responders can reduce the risk of tragic and violent escalation and mitigate the significant financial costs of diverting mentally ill citizens into the criminal justice system.

Redesigning first response systems to include mental health expertise must also have the enthusiastic support of a broad political coalition. Surveys of police officers show that they feel overwhelmed and frustrated by mental illness calls, for which they do not have adequate training. Similarly, voices for police reform do not want armed officers to respond to non-violent calls for help. Reallocating existing police resources to fund mental health first responders will allow police departments to focus on their core law enforcement mission.

A small but growing number of cities have introduced innovative programs that screen emergency calls by incident type or by a specially trained dispatcher. The goal is to identify calls where trained health care professionals can support the police or serve directly as first responders. Boston, Pittsburgh and Seattle have adopted “co-response” models that allow police officers to ask mental health specialists for guidance or have their own personal cooperation on field calls.

More ambitious but less common “community response” models dispense with police involvement in carefully screened calls. The groundbreaking program, which began in Eugene, Ore., more than 30 years ago, has 911 dispatchers direct nonviolent incidents involving behavioral health to a two-person team consisting of a physician and a crisis specialist of mental health. New York City and Washington began piloting similar community response initiatives last year and have recently expanded the scale of these operations.

We know very little about the effectiveness of these programs, the importance of their design details, and how to meet the challenges of implementing these programs well. However, our recent study of a community response initiative in Denver suggests that their promise is compelling and remarkable.

In June 2020, Denver piloted a community response program in inner-city neighborhoods, sending a mental health clinician and a paramedic in a van equipped for non-violent emergency calls related to mental health, substance abuse and the homeless. These teams most often responded to incidents involving violations, welfare checks and requests for assistance. During its first six months, Denver community representatives handled 748 calls for service, none of which resulted in an arrest.

Our independent analysis found that in the eight police districts where the pilot was active, Denver’s initiative reduced targeted, lower-level crimes such as disorderly conduct, trespassing and substance abuse by 34%. These reductions also occurred during hours when community responders were not available, a finding consistent with evidence that people in untreated mental health crises are likely to reoffend. We also found that the program’s corresponding reduction in police involvement did not lead to an unintended increase in more serious crimes.

These results illustrate that the direct cost savings of a community response program can be substantial. We estimate that Denver’s community response program cost only $151 per crime avoided. That amount is only a quarter of the estimated cost of processing lower-level offenses through the criminal justice system.

We’ll never know for sure if Jeffrey Haarsma would still be alive if his serial engagements with the police had included mental health support. But the available evidence on the tremendous promise and common sense of community response programs makes a strong case for studying this innovation across the country.

Mr. Dee is a professor at Stanford University and faculty director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, where Mr. Pyne is a research associate.

Wonderland: Joe Biden prefers to talk about racism and guns instead of facing the real problem. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Reuters/Shutterstock Credit: Mark Kelly

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.