All too often fear is what tips the balance between a life that sees the light of another day and one that ends violently. The fear stems from opposing forces — the individual suffering from severe mental illness who may be experiencing psychosis and police who are too often not prepared to handle a mental health crisis. When it comes to mental health and policing, the goal is simple — everyone goes home safely to see another sunrise.
But that doesn’t happen many times.
Since 2015, a whopping 5,480 people have been shot and killed by police, and 22 percent of them — 1,226 — were in a mental health crisis, according to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings. A 2019 report by the Human Rights Clinic of The University of Texas School of Law and the Austin Community Law Center found that out of 24 people killed in police shootings in Austin from 2010 to 2016, at least one-third had a confirmed mental health condition. Indeed, the report found Austin had the highest per capita rate of police shootings during mental health calls among the 15 largest U.S. cities. This should be a wake-up call telling us that we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.
In response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Ramos and too many others, there is a growing movement to reduce the size and ubiquity of the police presence in our cities and neighborhoods. This includes calls to remove police from schools and radically shift municipal budget priorities.
At the same time, there has been a surge in interest in making sure mental health providers, not law enforcement, are the ones to respond to a psychiatric crisis. This movement has been working in parallel with the larger effort to defund police, but it is not the same.
In fact, many mobile crisis teams rely on partnerships with police to accomplish their work. Given this schism, we must look for safe ways to lessen our reliance upon law enforcement during a mental health emergency while recognizing the value of well-trained compassionate mental health officers in some situations and not demonize those who are striving to make improvements within a flawed system.
Police brutality is antithetical to our goal of building communities that support the well-being of their members. At the same time, it would be unfair to overlook the great work that some police officers are doing in responding to mental health calls. “Ernie & Joe,” a pair of San Antonio cops who were the subject of a much-discussed HBO documentary film, are one example. They show us that a willingness to go above and beyond in understanding the complexities of mental health, combined with institutional support, points the way toward a more humane reality in which uniformed police officers may still play a role in handling mental health crises.
By default, police are not a mental health solution. For the officers, responding to mental health calls is stressful, time consuming and expensive, and it can induce fear in those not experienced in de-escalating a mental health crisis. For those with mental health conditions, police encounters are fraught with fear. Eliminating that fear by reducing police presence and increasing police skills when their presence is required can reduce tragic outcomes.
The best response is to ensure access to crisis response teams to operationalize what we know can help people in a mental health crisis while also understanding that we aren’t in an ideal world in which police are no longer needed to deal with threatening situations. Their experience is a good lesson for us: The welcome conversation about what a world with less policing would look like should not preclude doing what we know works for people with mental health conditions now. We must also continue to work toward a paradigm shift that exemplifies prevention in conjunction with a crisis response system that reflects the value of every life.
With or without police, all people deserve the best that we can give them, right now and where they are.
Octavio N. Martinez Jr. is the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and senior associate vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.