Police shootings in Baltimore and elsewhere involving people undergoing behavioral and mental health issues have amplified calls to rely less on police in those situations and more on outside agencies with specific training to handle people in crisis. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen and California Rep. Karen Bass, both Democrats, introduced legislation Thursday that, if passed, will help expand and pay for those programs.
Titled the “Community-Based Response Act of 2020,” the bill would create a $100 million federal program to bolster local agencies to help them serve as alternatives to a police response. It will be overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Van Hollen, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said it is an extension of the work Congress has done on police reform in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Police Act in June, meant to bring about a number of reform measures regarding use of force and police misconduct. But the bill has stalled in the Senate and President Donald Trump, a Republican, has said he opposes the bill.
“I think both of us see the legislation we’re introducing today ... as an essential complement to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” Van Hollen said, referring to Bass. “We need to fundamentally change the ways that emergencies are responded to in so many of these cases.”
The bill would establish a $100 million fund for fiscal years 2021 through 2025, requiring the federal health secretary to award at least 40 eligible partnerships “five-year initiation grants” out of the $100 million fund.
The bill comes at a time when some supporters of the national “Defund the Police” slogan point to instances in Baltimore and elsewhere where police officers have shot people experiencing mental health crises without receiving help from social workers or mental health professionals.
In July, Baltimore’s mental health agency, Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore, said the city’s police department has failed to properly integrate available crisis response staff when responding after an officer shot a man undergoing a behavioral health crisis in Northeast Baltimore. The team monitoring a federal consent decree overseeing the Baltimore Police Department also recently recommended the city support more community-based solutions to mental health crises.
In Baltimore County, several groups called on the county police department to review the shooting death of Eric Sopp, who was killed by a county officer on Interstate 83 last year. Sopp’s mother called 911 after Sopp allegedly threatened to harm himself with an ice pick. While body-worn camera footage showed Sopp not complying with the officer’s orders to remain inside his vehicle, some organizations have pointed to the fact that the officer did not call the county’s crisis response team for help handling Sopp.
Aaron Maybin, a former NFL player who’s become an advocate and artist in his hometown of Baltimore, says he sees the bill “as a major piece of discussions going forward about defunding the police.”
The slogan to defund police is a key to changing policing for the better by shifting some funding and resources away from police departments and toward more community-based organizations better trained at de-escalating conflict, supporters of the movement said.
Maybin said the bill is part of a “long, uphill battle toward real change in our criminal justice system” but added that it’s an important step toward supporting community organizations already doing the work on the ground in Baltimore and elsewhere.
“We have to first acknowledge that our police are asked to do way too much in cities like Baltimore,” Maybin said, adding that in mental health crises, officers “simply don’t have the training and experience in order to really impact the situation in a positive way.”
Van Hollen said previously that studies show about one out of every 10 calls to 911 services involves a mental health situation.
Erricka Bridgeford, a lead organizer of Baltimore Ceasefire and the new executive director of the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, spoke in favor of the legislation and said she sees the bill as a positive for police officers as well. She said taking that responsibility away from police can help with issues of overworked officers and “help officers build stronger relationships in the communities they serve.”
“This is not a proposal for a quick fix or a knee-jerk reaction,” she said.
Whether the bill can pass with partisan gridlock halting attempts to pass police reform measures in the U.S. Senate remains to be seen.
Kate Chatfield, the Director of Policy for The Justice Collaborative, said polls show that 66% of voters “across the political spectrum” support the legislation, which she called “one of, if not the most impactful thing that could be done to address the policing crisis in our country.”