Almost a year ago, New York City declared victory in its three-year-long war on the epidemic of so-called “close calls”, in which police officers on patrol responded to a mental health incident before making an arrest. While it’s still too early to judge their success, preliminary numbers suggest that there’s a trend towards fewer “close calls” and a big drop in use of Tasers to subdue people with mental illness.
New York saw its population of mentally ill patients jump from around 80,000 in 2007 to more than 400,000 in 2013 and 2013 was the biggest jump ever, as witnessed by the increase in calls for service to 911. Most of these calls – more than three-quarters – went un-responded to, according to a 2012 report from the Office of Emergency Management.
But the trend may be reversing. Some 80,000 people with mental illness are believed to have been referred to treatment or housing since the beginning of 2015 by the NYPD. The New York Police Department believes that, in order to reduce the number of 911 calls for mental health situations and “overshoot any mental health crisis”, it would need help from its officers and the community. It needs city and state legislators to pass sensible reforms that protect the rights of the mentally ill while allowing officers to detain and intervene. These reforms have been made and for the most part implemented in Baltimore, Virginia and Oregon, and they should be the starting point for New York.
Some national and local advocates, as well as some New York police officers, claim that these two groups can’t reconcile. The community cannot trust police enough to be told, with too little prior information, that they must take someone to a psychiatric hospital to be examined and prescribed medication – even if the family said, and the judge agreed, that their loved one wasn’t a threat. Police cannot commit someone without legal justification and, if they are arrested or get disorderly in detention, courts don’t seem to give much credence to claims that the person may be a threat. Many times, it’s just “postponement”.
But there’s a problem with the threat that police officers don’t generally perceive – and often go against – the medical and police professionals who work closely with the mentally ill. Any approach to mental health treatment must start with a more effective and correct understanding of this disorder.
Police officers have no better knowledge of mental illness than almost anyone else, and they have been trained for years to stop a 911 call. More often than not, they arrive at a scene and try to contain the person by whatever means possible, from pushing the person to slamming their head against a door or tossing them down a flight of stairs. Tasers have been designed to be used if someone is considered dangerous and not a threat to themselves or to others. New York has concluded, though, that Tasers are misused.
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In Washington DC, Tasers were banned after a 2008 shooting that left an unarmed black man dead. In 2011, an independent investigation into the fatal police shooting of Aaron Campbell, an unarmed mentally ill black man, concluded that the officer who fired a Taser was “overly aggressive”. The officer, it seems, couldn’t work out why Campbell hadn’t responded to the commands to take his hands out of his pockets – a lack of understanding of and compassion for a man with bipolar disorder led to his death.
The situation is similar in Baltimore, where police argued over whether a man with a history of mental illness could be handcuffed or not and whether he was a threat. Another court-ordered investigation following a 2013 homicide that same year found that the police department failed to document and record some 140 citizens’ calls for “overdue or missed calls” to 911 – which adds yet another layer of irony.
I don’t agree with “Overpolicing”. Overpolicing requires the perception of danger and the utter disregard for human life. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Twelve million Americans with mental illness are incarcerated, an average of eight times. None of this makes sense.
Police officers know the limitations of their tools. In New York City and other communities, they can no longer afford to wait for someone to contact them because of their mental illness or because they’re in the throes of a mental breakdown. Before you call 911, you need to have a reason. Your mental health and your safety