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Having a mental illness is not a crime and shouldn’t be treated as one | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski follows county police chief Melissa Hyatt following a press conference to announce a comprehensive public safety plan for the county Wed., Jan. 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski follows county police chief Melissa Hyatt following a press conference to announce a comprehensive public safety plan for the county Wed., Jan. 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Police aren’t the ideal people to handle mental health crises, but often find themselves doing just that. They’re frequently the first deployed when families call 911 because someone in the home is suffering mental distress and is a threat to themselves and others. Unfortunately, sometimes these calls can go horribly wrong, like when police can’t de-escalate the situation and end up using force — sometimes lethal — to subdue someone.

As police departments around the country face intense scrutiny in the wake of officer involved killings — like that of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota — many are looking at ways to reform their law enforcement methods. As part of that evaluation, police are increasingly acknowledging they don’t handle mental health calls as well as they could and are devising new policies and dedicating new resources to those types of calls.

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One of the most recent initiatives is in Baltimore County’s police department, which this month announced it will spend $1.6 million in federal funding as part of a pilot program to expand its intervention services.

“Behavioral health issues present challenges to law enforcement that we cannot successfully mitigate alone,” Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a news release announcing the beefed up services. “It takes collaboration with our valuable partners to divert individuals to the proper resources. Under this new initiative, we will have the opportunity to get more resources to the individuals who need them most.”

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The department is collaborating with the Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services to divert more mental health cases from law enforcement and emergency services to clinicians — masters degree-level licensed social workers or licensed professional counselors — who can better serve their needs, and so that police officers can keep their focus on fighting crime. The money will enable the police department to increase the case capacity of a mobile team already in place by up to 50%. They will also create a 911 call center for mental health cases that will hopefully address more nonviolent cases and mental health needs that don’t need police on hand.

This is exactly the kind of approach that police departments need to take in dealing with mental health calls. Locking people up does nothing to address the root of whatever issue they are having, and in fact, their condition could get worse. Finding people care in the community, where they can also get follow-up, long-term care outside the initial crisis call is the best way to help people.

Baltimore County isn’t the only jurisdiction looking at a new approach. Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott recently said that he wants to find ways to “re-imagine” the city budget so the “burden is not solely on the police.” He has put together a task force to consider how to come up with ways to shrink the police department over the next five years, including possibly diverting overdose and mental health emergency calls, to the city’s “world-class health institutions.” Anne Arundel County established mobile crisis teams 1999, which became fully integrated with the police department in 2014 with the formation of crisis intervention teams, which paired officers with licensed clinicians. The department is in the planning stages of expanding these teams. Howard County has also had intervention services in place for a number of years, including a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center to train officers on mental health awareness, de-escalation techniques, active listening skills and trauma-informed policing practices.

We hope to see police departments throughout Maryland continue to evolve in the way they handle mental health cases. Baltimore County should look for ways to make its pilot permanent if all goes well. Having a mental disorder is not a crime and shouldn’t be treated as one. Those with untreated severe mental illness are involved in 25-50% of all fatal police shootings, a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found. Reducing encounters with law enforcement and people with severe psychiatric disorders can help to reduce the number of shootings, the researchers also found. It also calls for the need for better mental health treatment in the U.S. A person’s mental health condition shouldn’t deteriorate so badly that the police have to be called and they end up a crime statistic.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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