Mental Health and Racial Justice: Why Advocates Want to Get Police Out of Crisis Responses

3 min
A Juneteenth march stops in front of the Oakland Police Station on June 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On April 18, San Leandro police officer Jason Fletcher shot and killed 33-year-old Steven Taylor, who was carrying a baseball bat around a local Walmart. The lawyer for Taylor's family says he lived with schizophrenia and bipolar depression and was mentally unwell the day he died. Taylor’s encounter with police lasted 40 seconds.

As nationwide debate grows over racial bias in cases of police violence, mental health advocates around the country are calling attention to police killings of people suffering from mental illnesses. A report by the Washington Post, which has been tracking police use of deadly force since 2015, found that at least 25% of people shot and killed by police displayed signs of mental illness. It also found that people who are experiencing mental illness or a disability are 16 times more likely to die during an encounter with police.

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People who are in an altered mental state may interact with police differently, and many police departments do not provide sufficient training on how to respectfully and safely interact with people in crisis.

Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, says police often escalate situations, as happened with Steven Taylor.

“What should have happened is that officer Fletcher should have cleared the Walmart, and then he should have allowed Steven Taylor to run around with that bat as long as he wanted to run around with that bat, and they should have called in a mental health professional who knew how to talk to someone in Stevens’ condition," Brooks said.

Brooks and her APTP co-founder, Asantewaa Boykin, are advocating for community-based resources to help people who are experiencing altered mental states — regardless of whether that is caused by mental illness or substance use.

Mental Health First

This summer, APTP launched Mental Health First Oakland, a mobile crisis response unit that provides assistance and resources, and puts callers' needs first. Brooks says the program is based on a culture of solidarity and mutual aid that already exists in communities of color as a result of police brutality and harassment.

“It's work that Black and brown and Indigenous people were already doing naturally in our communities because so many of us don’t call the police for anything ever,” Brooks said.

The hotline is staffed on Friday and Saturday nights when other mental health services typically aren’t available. Volunteers are trained in non-punitive deescalation techniques based on consent. Boykin is a Sacramento-based ER nurse and has previously worked with psychiatric patients. She says the primary goal of Mental Health First is to mitigate the immediate crisis and help people decide their own next step.

“Our framework doesn’t swoop in and tell people what they need or how they need it, we call it self-determined crisis management. Things as simple as getting people from a place where they feel unsafe, to a place where they feel safe," Boykin said.

Mental Health First operates with the understanding that people in crisis often know what they need, but may not have the resources to access it. It is one of many community-based programs in place across the country that is seeking to transform public perception of mental illness and the mental health care system as a whole.

Searching for Solutions

Ideas around mental health services centered around patient needs and consent are gaining momentum as the high-profile police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others burst into the national conversation this year, forcing organizations and public institutions to examine the ways many of our systems don’t serve and protect everyone.

During a recent panel discussion hosted by the Institute for the Development of Human Arts, which provides training and resources for shifting policy and practice in mental health care, experts from all over the country shared strategies and successes around eliminating law enforcement from crisis care.

Traditional mental health treatment has historically been based on the idea that people experiencing mental illness are a danger to their communities and need to be restrained and controlled, the panelists discussed. Though patients do have rights within these frameworks, the ability to protect these rights may be diminished by the altered mental state the patient is experiencing.

One solution that has gained attention is the practice of integrating social workers into police work involving mental health care. Boykin rejects this solution, pointing out that the social workers involved are sometimes indistinguishable from police officers.

“These social worker models need to be divorced from police and policing," Boykin said, "here in Sacramento we have a social worker that wears a police uniform that literally has the word social worker on the back. Someone who is not experiencing our shared reality can’t tell the difference between one person in a bulletproof vest and another."

Boykin said social work is inherently tied to law enforcement, and that deeper transformation is needed to rebuild trust with communities of color.

“Understand that these systems were built for white land-owning males, and what we’re gonna have to do is deconstruct them and rebuild them absent from the roots that are steeped in white supremacy," Boykin said.

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During the discussion, panelist Neil Gong — a sociologist who studies inequality in mental health care — acknowledged that in reimagining a new system, it's important that people still have access to existing tools that are useful.

“If a person wants access to a social worker to help them navigate whatever system is in front of them, or therapists of different sorts, or medication, we want them to have access to someone who can meet them in an egalitarian manner," he explained.

He also cautioned that calls to defund police and transform health care eerily reflect the 1950s movement to close down oppressive state hospitals that violated human rights and involuntarily held some patients indefinitely. Gong says defunding those institutions was co-opted by politicians during a period of fiscal crisis, and that when the money wasn’t reinvested in alternatives, city streets and jails began to be filled by people with psychiatric disabilities, which resulted in public backlash and calls to "bring back the asylum."

“We need to prepare for problems with new systems we build, especially in a bad economy like this, and we have to have real answers if people do demand a return to harsh enforcement," Gong said.

It seems that people are looking for real answers and solutions: More than 4,000 people registered for the discussion via Zoom, and the recording of the panel has since been viewed thousands of times.

In Oakland, the city council has responded to calls to defund the police by passing a revised city budget in June, which allocates $1.85 million to create a Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, or MACRO, which is intended to remove police from some 911 calls related to mental health.

But APTP has criticized the program’s white leadership as out of touch, and said MACRO was developed without adequate community input. Boykin says practical community solutions are what will make a difference in the future of mental healthcare, and that those solutions start with small steps.

“Talk to your neighbors, say hi, get to know them. One of our best tools is relationships," Boykin said. "If we begin to build those relationships across the fence eventually we will not need outside intervention."

Resources

  • The Institute for the Development of Human Arts is a mental health advocacy organization that advances holistic, transformative mental health practices rooted in the lived experience of people with mental illness. Their training and events value lived experience as highly as professional training and seek to advance alternatives to policing, criminal justice, and mental health care.
  • Mental Health First Oakland is a new model for non-police response to mental health crisis. Their goal is to provide telephone and mobile assistance to crisis including psychiatric emergencies, substance use support, and domestic violence. They can be reached Friday and Saturday Nights from 8pm-8am at (510) 999-9MH1.
  • Transformative Mutual Aid Practices is a guide for building personal wellness strategies, communication tools, and resilience practices to help individuals navigate challenging times and build support within their communities.
  • Here's KQED's guide to finding affordable, culturally competent therapy in the Bay Area.

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