Police Shouldn't Handle Mental Health Emergencies

By Kelly Burch 07/05/19

Cities across the nation are developing programs to shift the onus of mental health emergencies away from police officers.

police officers

At least one-quarter of fatal police shootings involve people with a serious mental illness, which is why more cities are developing programs to respond to people who have mental illness with trained individuals rather than police, in order to deescalate fraught situations and maintain safety. 

Manning Walker works with Cahoots, a group in Eugene, Oregon, that responds to non-criminal emergency calls where someone has a mental illness. In 2017, the group responded to 17% of calls to 911 in the city. 

“When I’m talking to a more liberal group of people, I’ll make the argument it’s the compassionate thing to do, it’s the humane thing to do,” Walker told Vox. “When I’m talking to a conservative group, I’ll make the argument that it’s the fiscally conservative thing to do because it’s cheaper for us to do this than for the police and firefighters.”

Eugene Police Department Lt. Ron Tinseth told The Wall Street Journal that the program expands their reach by allowing officers to prioritize illegal activities. 

“It allows police officers to… deal with crime, but it also allows us to offer a different service that is really needed,” he said. 

Cahoots employees are able to approach people in crises—who may be mentally ill, intoxicated or disoriented—calmly and connect with them in order to de-escalate emergencies. Then, the person can be connected with help, rather than be jailed. 

"Therapy Session on Wheels" Respond To Mental Health Emergencies In Stockholm

In Stockholm, a similar system has been in place since 2015. Nurses who specialize in mental health and a paramedic respond to suicide attempts and psychotic episodes. 

“It used to be the police who handled these kinds of calls,” mental health nurse Anki Björnsdotter told Vice. “But just the presence of the police can easily cause a patient to feel like they’ve done something wrong. Mental illness is nothing criminal so it doesn’t make sense to be picked up by the police.”

The system now has widespread support. 

“It has been considered a huge success by police, nurses, healthcare officials, as well as by the patients,” said Fredrik Bengtsson of Sabbatsberg Hospital in Stockholm. 

Oakland May Develop Similar Program for Mental Health Crises

Oakland, California may be the next city to take this novel approach to addressing mental health crises. The city’s budget, passed at the end of July, includes money to study the feasibility of adopting a Cahoots program in Oakland. City officials hope that the program could launch next year. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.