Calling First Responder Mental Health Teams, Not Police Officers

Time and time again, United States city police officers are called upon to report on individuals experiencing homelessness. Police officers are the first-responders to instances when those who are homeless experience a mental health crisis. When they sit down in front of someone's home or business, "too long ." Or when someone who is homeless is experiencing a substance abuse crisis. The issue with this method? Police officers are unnecessary for non-violent psychiatric or behavioral crises. But, more importantly, they are insufficiently trained to administer de-escalating tactics when addressing such mental health-related calls. 

The Office of Research of Public Affairs conducted a study elucidating the upsetting results of police officers’ interactions with those who are mentally ill. The study notes that individuals with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be involved in a fatal police incident than individuals in the general civilian population. Additionally, the study notes that individuals in this instance are more likely to become incarcerated in the process, with many mentally ill individuals being sent to the corrections institution. While there are many variables as to why this rate is so high, one issue cited in the literature is that police officers lack the de-escalation skills necessary to effectively and safely address this issue.

De-escalation techniques are named aptly, representing techniques that seek to lessen the severity of situations. Those who undergo de-escalation technique training gain educational foundations in mental health and learn how to communicate and calm individuals experiencing mental health crises effectively. In addition, these tactics are increasingly efficient in non-violent psychiatric or behavioral problems . So much so that cities across the United States identified an innovation using them: prepare a non-police force team explicitly trained with mental health de-escalation skills to answer these calls.

Cities across the United States identified that non-police teams of social workers and mental health experts effectively answered mental-health-related calls safely and humanely. Having professional education and experience in addressing mental health crises, first-responder teams of these professionals have begun to leap into action for these calls.

San Francisco has recently proposed a program doing just this called Compassionate Alternate Response Team (CART). CART creates an alternative first-responder team specifically designated to answer non-violent, non-emergency mental health or behavioral crisis. CART is a part of a widespread police reform initiative. Police officers also support the plan to re-navigate these calls. This program better helps those in need, majorly individuals experiencing homelessness and mental illnesses. It is also estimated to save San Francisco 11 million dollars annually, diverting from police officers’ engagement.

The bottom line? Police officers are not currently the best option to answer non-violent, non-emergency mental health-related calls. Instead, it’s teams like CART. 


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