Four Houston police officers have been fired after the shooting death of a man whose family says he was having a mental health crisis.
Daniel Prude was experiencing a mental health crisis in March when Rochester, New York, police officers responding to a 911 call pinned him to the pavement while handcuffed and naked, suffocating him to death.
A month later, Nicolas Chavez, 27, was “having a mental breakdown” in Houston when he was shot 21 times, with 28 officers on the scene.
And last week, 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who has autism, was having an episode when officers shot him, leaving him with injuries to his shoulder, ankles, intestines and bladder.
Amid a nationwide movement for racial justice and police reform sparked by the recent killings of several Black men and women, many people have spoken out against police shootings of people experiencing mental health crises. While some are calling for departments to require more training in crisis intervention, others are promoting alternative emergency responder programs.
“A person shouldn’t lose their life because they’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition,” said Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “People deserve help, not handcuffs.”
A mom called 911: To help her 13-year-old with autism. Utah police shot him
Police must now try de-escalation first: After officer shot 13-year-old with autism
The doctrine of qualified immunity has been used to protect police from civil lawsuits and trials. Here’s why it was put in place.
Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates.
And more than 1 in 5 people shot and killed by police have a mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers.
Police have fatally shot more than 1,200 people with mental illnesses – the majority of whom were white – since 2015, according to the database. Of the nearly 700 people shot and killed by police so far this year, more than 100 had a mental illness.
“The police become the responders of last resort, and the jails become the mental hospitals of last resort,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health and Justice. “Increasingly, the police and correctional system become the last option.”
4 Texas police officers fired: Fatally shot man ‘having a mental breakdown’ in April
A tribute to Nicolas Chavez, 27, who was shot and killed April 21 by several police officers during a confrontation in Denver Harbor, sits at the site of the shooting along Interstate 10, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo: Mark Mulligan, AP)
More mental health training needed?
In police training academies, officers may receive anywhere between four and 12 hours of training in mental health, and it varies by state, Scharf said. According to a 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, new recruits spend about 58 hours in firearms training and eight hours in crisis intervention training.
Approximately 2,700 of the nation’s roughly 18,000 police departments have some or all of their officers go through crisis intervention training (CIT), known as the “Memphis model,” which aims to help police recognize a mental health problem and get people to treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Daniel Prude’s death: Emails show Rochester officials’ attempts to conceal information
The program calls for 40 hours of training in various topics, such as mental health diagnoses, psychiatric medications and drug abuse. It also teaches officers verbal de-escalation skills and has officers spend time interacting with people who have gone through a mental health crisis.
Scharf said members of the Rochester Police Department have historically participated in crisis intervention training – and were once “thought leaders in crisis intervention management.” But the officers involved in Prude’s death did not follow the training’s de-escalation protocols, he said. They should have slowed down the situation, engaged Prude, called for mental health back-up, avoided using a “spit hood” and more.
Thousands of protesters at hundreds of demonstrations in recent months have called to defund police departments in favor of investing taxpayer dollars in community services. But police departments need more funding to provide more mental health training, Scharf said.
“The theme should not be defund the police but make the police better,” he said. “The (Prude) case is the poster child of our inability to handle a growing problem on mentally ill people. Right now, we have a possibly pretty untrained police force to handle a variety of issues, including this one.”
Will police be charged in Prude’s death? This evidence may be the deciding factor
Not everyone agrees that more training is needed. Instead, police officers should function as part of a larger public health system, working with community-based violence interrupters and mental health professionals, said Charlie Ransford, senior director of science and policy at Cure Violence, a Chicago-based nonprofit that treats violence with disease control and behavior change methods.
“A lot of people are asking – how can we train police to do a better job? But that’s the wrong paradigm. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to send a police officer,” Ransford said. “We can’t just put in an eight-hour training and expect them to be up-to-speed with things people get degrees in.”
Alternative emergency response models
Some police departments, such as in Los Angeles and San Antonio, have partnered with mental health professionals to work as “co-responders,” assisting street cops responding to incidents involving a mental health crisis.
In Louisville, which this week unveiled a $12 million settlement for Breonna Taylor’s family that includes a host of police reforms, the city increased its police budget in June and put money toward exploring co-responder models.
Other cities rely on emergency response models that do not involve police. In Eugene, Oregon, two-person teams consisting of a medic and a crisis worker respond to calls of mental health crises through a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS). White Bird Clinic, a health care center in the city, launched the program as a community policing initiative in 1989.
Eugene Police officer Bo Rankin, left, meets with Cahoots administrative coordinator Ben Brubaker and emergency crisis worker Matt Eads, right, after working a shift together as part of the Community Outreach Response Team in Eugene. (Photo: Chris Pietsch, The Register-Guard)
The government-funded CAHOOTS program now responds to a range of mental health related crises and relies on techniques that are focused on harm reduction. Responders don’t carry weapons, and among the roughly 24,000 calls CAHOOTS received last year, teams requested police backup only 150 times, according to the program.
CAHOOTS calls come to Eugene’s 911 system or the police non-emergency number, and dispatchers identify non-violent situations with a behavioral health component and route those calls to CAHOOTS, whose teams assess the situation and connect individuals to treatment services, if needed.
With a budget of about $2.1 million annually, CAHOOTS answered 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume in 2017, according to the program.
“The idea there is to assume that the vast majority of crisis calls really aren’t going to need law enforcement involvement, and more and more locations are starting to explore that model,” Kimball said. “We’re thinking that that is really the future of crisis response, focused on behavioral health with law enforcement support only when needed.”
More young people are dying by suicide: Experts aren’t sure why
Certified Nursing Assistant Celene Eldrich, left, a volunteer for CAHOOTS waits to screen guests for health concerns at the Egan Warming Center’s Springfield, Ore. (Photo: Chris Pietsch, The Register-Guard)
Several other cities are in the process of replicating the CAHOOTS model. In June, Denver began piloting a program through a grant that sends a social worker and paramedic to emergency calls instead of police.
One responder van running 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday has answered close to 600 calls since the start of the pilot, said Vinnie Cervantes, a member of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, who helped start the program, Support Team Assisted Response.
The majority of calls have been “trespassing calls” – residents calling the police on people who are unhoused. The second-highest calls have been wellness checks related to mental health crises, he said.
In 2019, Cervantes went with a group from Denver to Eugene to study the CAHOOTS model. Now, his organization is also in talks with officials in nearby Aurora – where 23-year-old Elijah McClain died last year after officers stopped him on the street – and Englewood about how they can adapt alternative models that fit the needs of their residents.
“We have three very different cities that are in the process of making this happen, and that could be a blueprint for making this happen in all cities across the country,” Cervantes said. “We could make this happen in cities of all sizes and all budgets if the political will is there.”
Mental health hotline coming in 2022
Big change is also on the horizon for July 2022, Kimball said. That’s when the 988 national mental health hotline goes live.
“The intent is that 988 would eventually be able to dispatch and connect with a range of crisis response services – mobile crisis teams, crisis stabilization programs,” Kimball said. “However, that infrastructure is highly localized, so whatever might be available in one state may be very different.”
There is a U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and it’s a 10-digit number that will continue to serve as the infrastructure for the 988 shortcut.
But to make the new hotline effective, there’s a lot of work to be done at the community level to develop crisis responders programs capable of taking the calls, Kimball said.
“With COVID, we’re seeing an increase in calls, and with 988, we’re expecting an even greater demand,” Kimball said.
COVID-19 has devastated Americans’ mental health: Here’s a simple way all of us can help.
Further upstream, we need to rethink how we’re delivering mental health care, Kimball said.
“When you look at the lack of access to mental health care, it’s clear that that is contributing to people experiencing crises – many of which are inherently avoidable if you get people the right care at the right time,” Kimball said. “We shouldn’t wait until somebody is experiencing a crisis. It’s not good for the person. It’s not good for their family. It’s not good for the community. And it’s not the job law enforcement signed up for.”
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741. For people who identify as LGBTQ, if you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, you can also contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7/365 at 1-866-488-7386.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/09/18/police-shooting-mental-health-solutions-training-defund/5763145002/