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2 reasons cops should not respond to non-violent mental health calls

Society cannot expect police officers to handle mental health calls with the same expertise as mental health care professionals


In July 2016, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “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.”

I could not agree more with former Chief Brown’s statement that we are asking cops to do too much, especially in the area of mental health response.

I have been a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) coach for over a decade and believe the current push for more mental health care training for police officers is a good thing in part. I say in part because after years of experience and research, I do not believe that law enforcement should be responsible for responding to non-violent mental health calls.

In this Sept. 2, 2015 file photo, officers Danny Lora, right, and Maryan Soliman assist actor Grant Cooper during a Crisis Intervention Training class at the New York Police Department Police Academy, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
In this Sept. 2, 2015 file photo, officers Danny Lora, right, and Maryan Soliman assist actor Grant Cooper during a Crisis Intervention Training class at the New York Police Department Police Academy, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

As a profession, we are problem solvers. The public and elected officials know this, so they keep heaping societal problems on us with the expectation that we solve them. It is time we start saying no.

There are two reasons why I believe society should stop having police officers respond to non-violent mental health calls:

1. Cops lack adequate mental health care response training

The average psychologist has between 10-12 years of college education in addition to 3,000 hours of supervised training. A licensed mental health care professional has between 7-8 years of college education in addition to hundreds of hours of supervised training.

By comparison, a police officer who attends a CIT course receives 40 hours of formalized training. Most police officers receive far less than 40 hours training afforded to those who attend CIT training.

Yet despite this gap in training, society expects police officers to show up and handle mental health calls with the same precision and expertise of a mental health care professional. This is an unrealistic expectation.

We are setting police officers up for failure by continuing to send them on calls that, in spite of our best efforts, we can never train them well enough to handle.

2. Law enforcement brings the tail of the criminal justice system

There is a consensus within society that the criminal justice system is not the appropriate place to handle those who suffer from mental illness.

In light of this, it makes no sense to send police officers – who bring the tail of the criminal justice system with them – on calls involving non-violent mentally ill individuals.

The chance of a non-violent mentally ill person being interjected into the criminal justice system increases when they come into contact with police. Our jails are full of people suffering from mental illness who have no business being there, yet society keeps sending them because there is no other place for them to go.

We have taken away the places where those who suffer from mental illness can get access to the mental health care they need. Instead, they have been fast-tracked into the criminal justice system. We are not serving the best interest of those who consume mental health services or society by continuing to have police officers handle calls involving non-violent mentally ill people.

I propose two solutions to this problem:

1. Develop mental health care response teams

We need teams of trained mental health care professions and social workers who can respond to all calls involving non-violent mentally ill individuals.

These teams should be available 24 hours a day just like police officers. By having these teams in place, we would not expose consumers of mental health care services to the criminal justice system at the same rates as we currently do.

These teams would be responsible for taking care of placing those individuals who experience a violent mental health episode after law enforcement officers secure them.

Establishing these teams would go a great way toward removing law enforcement from encountering non-violent mental health sufferers in an enforcement capacity.

2. Focus on de-escalation training

The current push for mental health response is good, but we should focus more on de-escalation training, which is different from CIT training.

Although we often intertwine these terms, de-escalation training focuses on giving police officers the tools to defuse potentially volatile situations involving agitated individuals.

Police officers can use de-escalation techniques to defuse situations involving individuals suffering from a mental health crisis, but dealing with someone who is just angry is different from dealing with someone who is mentally ill.

It is time to start having the conversation about what mental health response looks like without police involvement. This discussion may spur much needed progress toward coming up with a logical and practical solution to this ever-growing problem.

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