At the heart of the national conversation about whether and how police have perpetuated institutional racism in this country, is a fundamental question: What role should they play in our daily lives?
Certainly, we want the men and women of law enforcement to continue to perform the often dangerous job of protecting us from those who would do us harm or jeopardize the quality of our lives. But we must balance this with the need to redesign our police forces in a way that also builds the community trust necessary to carry out this function.
A recent report issued by the Vera Institute found that the majority of the 240 million 911 calls made each year involve things like minor traffic accidents, neighbor disputes, nuisance complaints and calls for individuals in mental health or substance abuse crisis. Less than 20% of the calls for service involved a serious or violent crime in progress.
Faced with this data, cities throughout the country are changing their models for responding to those who require assistance in ways that are more appropriate to the caller’s specific needs.
Among the initiatives being tried are the creation of crisis intervention teams made up of unarmed trained paramedics, mental health professionals and substance abuse counselors who respond to calls involving individuals in psychiatric stress or substance abuse. These types of calls often involve individuals in distress who exhibit frantic and unpredictable behavior that can lead to an unnecessary use of force by a police officer who may misinterpret the behavior as a threat. Variations of these mobile crisis units are being employed in cities in California, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
A long-standing program in Eugene, Oregon, known as CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets) is often cited as the model for other cities. In it, 911 dispatchers are trained to recognize calls involving mental health crises, conflict resolution, substance abuse and suicide prevention and refer them to CAHOOTS paramedics and crisis workers with experience in the mental health field, who rely on de-escalation and harm reduction techniques to respond. Importantly, this is not a model of crisis workers teamed with uniformed police officers. A police officer with gun, handcuffs, pepper spray and the ability to arrest can be very frightening and trigger an adverse reaction by someone already in distress, potentially with deadly consequences. This is particularly true when the individual is a member of a Black or brown community where fear of the police is palatable and real based on years of discriminatory practice.
Recent data show that more than 25% of fatal encounters between police and citizens began with a 911 call for disruptive behavior arising from mental illness. Dispatching mental health and substance abuse professionals along with paramedics, instead of armed police officers, may have prevented such tragedies like the fatal encounter between Rochester, New York, police officers and Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man with mental health problems who died after police trying to subdue him placed a bag over his head and pinned his body to the ground, or the recent incident in Houston, Texas, where an officer responding to a domestic abuse call was fatally shot. Allowing trained professionals to handle these types of calls would reduce arrests and the cost of incarceration for individuals who would be better served by treatment rather than imprisonment.
According to a survey conducted in June by the progressive think tank Data for Progress, 68% of voters support the creation of such programs, and federal legislators are showing their support for this model with the introduction of the CAHOOTS Act, which would establish funding from Medicaid and grants to go to local jurisdictions to make this change to their policing.
Recently, after Philadelphia police officers shot and killed a 27-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness, the police chief said, “It’s common for officers to respond to domestic disturbance or any type of call with a gun because it’s one of the tools we carry on our tool belt.” True, but it’s time we expand that “tool belt” and provide our police with non-lethal means to de-escalate such confrontations. We should take advantage of the opportunity presented by the movement toward police reform by clearly defining what their duties are and instilling in them an appreciation for the different groups they serve and protect. The result will be fewer deadly encounters and a more strategic use of resources to fight crime and build a stronger, positive relationship between the police and all citizens.
Gregg Bernstein is a former State’s Attorney for Baltimore City and a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. He can be reached at email@example.com. Lydia Watts is a lawyer and executive director of The Rebuild, Overcome and Rise (ROAR) Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; she is also a Bloomberg Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.