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Ex-city cops: Baltimore needs a new protocol for handling mental health crises | READER COMMENTARY

An unidentified man, who appears agitated, is seen in body camera footage taking his right hand out of his pocket and aiming a Taurus semi-automatic weapon toward officers who had been called to a home in the 5800 block of Falkirk Road. Body camera footage from the three officers at the scene of the police-involved shooting on July 1 was released at a press conference at police headquarters by Baltimore City Commissioner Michael Harrison and Deputy Commissioner of the Public Integrity Unit, Brian Nadeau, on July 9, 2020
An unidentified man, who appears agitated, is seen in body camera footage taking his right hand out of his pocket and aiming a Taurus semi-automatic weapon toward officers who had been called to a home in the 5800 block of Falkirk Road. Body camera footage from the three officers at the scene of the police-involved shooting on July 1 was released at a press conference at police headquarters by Baltimore City Commissioner Michael Harrison and Deputy Commissioner of the Public Integrity Unit, Brian Nadeau, on July 9, 2020 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

As retired Baltimore police officers of various leadership positions within the command structure, we agree with the perspective of social workers Tavi Hawn, Doha Chibani, and David Avruch (”Mental health crises shouldn’t be handled by police,” July 8) that mental health crisis should not be handled by police.

One of the most unreasonable expectations placed on the police officer is a call for a person in mental health crisis. Police generally do not have the requisite skills to effectively handle these calls. All too often, injury occurs to the person in mental health crisis during intervention by the police. Sometimes, and unfortunately, death has also occurred during these interventions. The social workers provide three examples, although there are many more.

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Training that enables a police officer to “recognize” a person in mental health crisis is not the same as training required to effectively “de-escalate” a person in mental health crisis. The latter training takes far more time than training offered in a police curriculum. It requires persons specifically trained for that purpose. Mental health clinicians are specifically trained to address the type of situation that involves a mental health crisis. Although police are here to help the community solve its problems, there are some situations such as a mental health crisis that are beyond the purview of the role of a police officer as a first responder to assess and deescalate the situation.

We agree with the social workers that there needs to be a legislative committee to reexamine the way persons in mental health crisis receive intervention upon first contact as a result of a call for assistance for that person. Mental health clinicians should be included in this discussion and process in developing a new protocol that will not have the police as the initial and lead responder as a general rule.

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Barry W. Powell, Leonard Hamm, Richard Hite Jr., Wendell France and Henry Martin.

The writers are retired members of the Baltimore Police Department and each of is a former president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an African American police advocacy group. All are currently involved in the criminal justice or legal arena in some capacity.

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