Last year, the mental health nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center found that one in three people taken to hospital emergency rooms in psychiatric crises are brought there by the police. Law enforcement drove 5,424,212 miles transporting people with serious mental illness—a distance greater than circling the earth 217 times.
Police are not qualified for this responsibility. A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that officers received an average of eight hours dedicated to “Crisis Intervention Training” (CIT)—a mental health training program with promising but mixed results, according to research.
Police also don’t have a great track record of de-escalating situations with mentally ill people, who are 16 times more likely to be killed by police officers. One in four people killed by police in 2015 had a serious mental illness, a Washington Post investigation found. And when mental illness intersects with racial prejudices, it’s a sinister combination. “It’s often said that the criminal justice system is the mental health system for Black men,” said Gregg Bloche, a health policy expert and a professor of law at Georgetown University.
A rallying cry emerging from the recent nationwide protests against police brutality is to “defund the police,” or, use money dedicated to police departments to pay for other social welfare initiatives. Mental health programs are a top candidate—CIT, preventative mental health services, more psychiatric beds, and, importantly, alternative response teams to respond to 911 mental health calls.
Some law enforcement officers around the country agree that they’re spending disproportionate amounts of their time and money on mental health, when it’s not their place to do so. “Philosophically, using law enforcement authority to arrest someone as a means to seek mental healthcare is just simply wrong,” said Dave Mahoney, the sheriff of Madison, Wisconsin.
She said she had something to tell me but that she was afraid. I reached for her trembling hand, telling her sweetly, naïvely, that it would be...