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Easing Law Enforcement’s Burden on 911 Mental Health Calls

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“Individuals with untreated mental illness are sixteen times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police.” – Study by the Treatment Advocacy Center

Steven Taylor was a 33-year-old man with mental health issues. He was the father of three. In April 2020, Taylor was experiencing a mental health crisis inside a Walmart in California. A caller to 911 stated that a man (later identified as Taylor) was holding a bat and threatening to hit an associate and customers with it.

Taylor was repeatedly told by a police officer to drop the bat. He refused to drop the bat and become more confrontational. Even after he was shot twice with a Taser, Taylor still refused to drop the bat. A police officer then fired a single shot into Taylor’s chest, and he dropped to the ground. He died at the scene. The police officer has been charged with voluntary manslaughter as a result of the incident. A trial date has not been set.

Angelo Quinto was a 30-year-old Navy veteran with a history of paranoia. In December 2020, Quinto’s family called 911 because he was suffering from a mental health crisis. In an incident reminiscent of the George Floyd case, the responding police officer knelt on Quinto’s neck in front of his family for nearly five minutes until he lost consciousness. He died in the hospital three days later. Quinto’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department.

Law Enforcement Has Inadequate Training in Mental Health Issues

Every day police officers respond to 911 calls regarding individuals in mental health crises. But do they have sufficient training to handle individuals suffering from mental illnesses? Should law enforcement be the first responders to those having mental health crises? Is there an alternative to sending police officers on 911 mental health calls?

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It is estimated that law enforcement agencies across the United States spend over 20% of their time responding to calls involving mental health issues. Police officers, however, receive minimal training on how to deal with these issues and often the situation escalates because the individual becomes defensive, frightened by a police presence, and even violent.

Using Mental Health Crisis Response Teams to Ease the Burden on Law Enforcement

Several larger cities, including Eugene, Oregon, San Francisco, Denver, Toronto, and Seattle, have developed mental health crisis response teams to deal with nonviolent 911 mental health calls. Law enforcement may serve in a back-up role if available, but the mental health crisis response teams take the lead in interacting with individuals in distress.

In Eugene, ‘Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets’ Responds to Mental Health Calls

In Eugene, a non-profit organization known as Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) responds to mental health calls. The CAHOOTS responders consist of crisis workers and medics; and in past years, they have responded to over 16,000 calls in Eugene. The responders carry medical supplies and blankets, and often help those afflicted with mental health issues to reach shelters or treatment facilities.

According to the its website, CAHOOTS is a community policing initiative started in 1989 as “a mobile crisis intervention team, designed as an alternative to police response for non-violent crises.” The CAHOOTS model has been studied and followed by other cities.

In San Francisco Street Crisis Response Teams Have Responded to Over 800 Calls Since 2020

In San Francisco, a Street Crisis Response Team responds to a 911 call about a woman standing in the middle of the street screaming. The woman is having a mental health crisis and believes her daughter and granddaughter are trapped in a nearby abandoned building. The Response Team comforts the woman and determines that she is hungry.

After getting her food, the team is able to convince the woman to check into a psychiatric treatment facility. This call was obviously a resounding success, and one that not only takes the burden off law enforcement but also allows mental health professionals to respond and defuse the situation.

The program started in San Francisco at the end of November 2020, and Street Crisis Response Teams have already responded to over 800 calls since then. According to San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed, the program is designed to “break the cycle that all too often keeps people going in and out of emergency rooms or our jails.” The Street Crisis Response Team will be able to “help with compassion and clinical skills to get people the care and support they need,” the mayor added.

In a One-Year Period, Denver Law Enforcement Responded to Over 15,000 Calls

Recently, officials from Denver traveled to Eugene to observe its CAHOOTS model because  Denver has seen increases in 911 calls that involve mental health issues. In a one-year period, Denver law enforcement responded to over 15,000 calls that involved those with mental illnesses. These calls divert police officers from actual emergencies that require uniformed officers and leads to more arrests that might be avoided by using mental health professionals.

For example, Matt Vinolla is a 27-year-old who lives in the streets of Denver due to his mental illness. He has been diagnosed with paranoia and schizophrenia that is complicated by his drug use. Vinolla has been arrested on numerous misdemeanor charges and has been in and out of Denver courts for the past four years. It is believed that he and others like him will respond better to nonconfrontational contact with mental health professionals who are better equipped to address such illnesses. Vinolla’s mother hopes that is the case so he can get the desperate help he needs.

What Can Smaller Police Forces with Limited Budgets Do?

Smaller police forces located in areas that cannot afford Street Crisis Response Teams should consider creating Mental Health Agency Liaison Officer positions. The goal is to have these officers partner with mental health, substance abuse, and social service agencies and pass on their skills to help police officers when encountering these situations. The ultimate goal is to have funds available through federal or state programs so smaller police forces can have at least one mental health team to help with 911 calls.

Law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with mental health emergency calls and are not adequately trained to handle such situations. So programs like CAHOOTS must be expanded across the United States to ease the burden on law enforcement agencies. They will also ensure that mental health professionals are the first responders. Redirecting these calls to Street Crisis Response Teams will allow law enforcement to focus on 911 calls that require uniformed police officers and will ultimately help to address mental health issues in a meaningful way.

Kerry L. Erisman is an attorney and associate professor of legal studies with American Military University. He is a retired Army officer who previously served as an Army military police and later as a prosecutor, chief prosecutor, and defense attorney. Kerry writes and teaches on important legal and criminal justice issues, and military spouse issues including leadership, critical thinking, and education.

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