Policy: Mental Health First Responders
We have built a system that sets up our law enforcement officers to fail. To quote Dallas’s police chief, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country, we are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
When we ask ourselves who should be focusing on a stray dog problem, the answer is obviously animal control. Adding that burden to the police is not only asking them to deal with a situation they’re not trained for, but it also takes them away from doing the work of actually keeping the peace. The same principle applies to mental health.
When 355 law enforcement agencies across the country were polled, they said officers spent 21% of their time responding to or transporting people with mental illnesses. Unfortunately 45% of those agencies also stated that the majority of their officers don’t have crisis intervention training to safely and effectively deal with those situations. When you combine those two figures, it is no surprise that someone with an untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than an average civilian and that people with mental illnesses make up at least 25% of all fatal police shooting victims.
By sending police officers to deal with these situations, we are frequently making those situations worse. Today I’m proposing using a system that has been working in parts of Oregon for decades. In cities like Portland and Eugene, when someone calls 911, the operator has the option to forward the call to a Mental Health First Responder team. These are people with training in areas like mental health, suicide intervention, and drug addiction. They have existed since 1989 and handle roughly 20% of the city of Eugene’s over 95,000 annual emergency calls.
We all know asking police officers to be dog catchers is bad policy. We need to stop burdening police officers with every societal ill and start making certain we are putting our resources where they are actually effective. By making certain we are sending the right people for the right job, we save money, we save time, and most importantly, we save lives.
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