The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Ashley Matter and Amy VanderStoep are students at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. These thoughts are their own and do not reflect their institution.
The current political climate has kept many of us glued to the news. But beneath the shadow of the Capitol mob, a second impeachment and a new administration remains a persistent and important matter that continues to plague the United States: police violence. This type of violence has become tragically common. So much so that the killing of Patrick Warren Sr. by law enforcement on Jan. 10 barely made headlines.
The data cannot be ignored. Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by police each year than white Americans. Additionally, individuals living with a mental illness are more than 16 times more likely to be killed by the police than other civilians: Dontre Hamilton, Walter Wallace Jr., Ricardo Munoz — the list goes on. One person with mental illness is killed by police every 48 hours. Change is long overdue.
Compounding this problem is the fact that mental illness remains heavily stigmatized in the United States. This stigma is worsened by the false association that people who have a mental illness are more likely to be violent. In actuality, individuals with serious mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. When these individuals or their families reach out for help, they should not be met with violence, but should instead be connected with appropriate support and care. Often, this does not require law enforcement.
Nonviolent scenarios with no weapons present opportunities for non-police response. This could have been the case for the recent call that ended in the killing of Patrick Warren Sr. When his family called for mental health support, no one was available; a single police officer was sent instead.
The benefits of a non-police response are twofold. First, this approach alleviates pressure on law enforcement, who are better equipped as a public safety entity. Second, it allows multidisciplinary teams of trained professionals to employ de-escalation without the intimidating presence that law enforcement can have.
One proven example is the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets model used in Eugene, Oregon. The CAHOOTS model involves the deployment of a crisis intervention team made up of a medical professional, like a nurse or emergency medical technician, and one mental health crisis worker. Evidence shows that this model is both successful in reducing the need for law enforcement and cost-effective. States should devote public safety funding to development and maintenance of such multidisciplinary teams that are able to be sent into appropriate, nonviolent scenarios, such as a mental health crisis.
When weapons are reported in a situation, police presence may be necessary. Crisis intervention teams, or CIT, are comprised of officers with advanced training to address complex mental health calls. This training has been shown to improve officer attitudes about mental illness. CIT training has led to a reduction in arrests of people with mental illness and has instead increased the likelihood that an encounter with police will lead to treatment.
States should specify a subset of police funding to be focused toward CIT training for designated officers and conduct annual reviews of the progress and efficacy of the training. Agencies should review the original iteration of this training, the Memphis Model, to ensure that officers on the team are self-motivated to engage, receive annual retraining and are available on all shifts for mental health and crisis-related calls.
While these are only first steps toward reform, evidence indicates that such changes effectively save lives by allowing trained professionals to respond to mental health crises. States must act now to protect the lives of individuals living with a mental illness.
This time is one of transition and change. A new administration brings new opportunities for policy reform and there are real solutions that can be implemented. The loss of Patrick Warren Sr.’s life was one life too many. If we do nothing and maintain the status quo, his life will not be the last one lost.