**FILE PHOTO** Courtesy of Bread for the City

The D.C. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal lawsuit against the District of Columbia, challenging improper practices of sending policemen to the scene of mental health emergencies, largely found to endanger residents who are suffering from mental health issues.

Filed on behalf of Bread for the City, a local nonprofit group that provides medical, food, and social services to underserved communities, the collective is fighting for the District to reframe its medical emergency infrastructure and provide a solid support system for mental health emergencies, similar to what exists for physical health emergencies.

“More than just illogical and dangerous, D.C.’s emergency response system fails to provide the same level of care for people in mental health crises as for people in physical health crises.  This is precisely the type of unequal treatment our disability rights laws are designed to protect against,” Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, stated in a formal press release announcing the suit last Thursday. 

According to the federal lawsuit, the District discriminates against residents suffering from mental health disabilities by failing to ensure mental health providers, emphasizing the need to dispatch trained specialists to the scenes of people who are facing mental health crises within a timely fashion and discontinue the protocol to dispatch police officers who are not equipped to address mental health emergencies.

Further details within the suit highlight that less than 1 percent of 911 calls placed in D.C. regarding a mental health emergency end up receiving a response from an actual mental health professional.  Although the District has over 1,500 EMTs, they have hired only 44 CRTs.  Due to the scarce number of CRT professionals available to serve the entire city, response times range from one to three hours, sometimes more, unlike EMTs who arrive within minutes of an emergency.  Consequently, police officers often become the first responders on the scene.

One of the most common emergencies Bread for the City witnesses, is residents facing suicidal ideations.  Typically, staff members’ first line of action is to call the District’s crisis response team (CRT), while conducting their assessments to gather additional resources they can provide their client.   However, staff members are often left sitting in a room with suicidal clients after crisis response teams do not show up promptly, further prompting staff to call the 911 emergency line for immediate help.

“Most often we’re sitting in a room with someone who is feeling suicidal, having a crisis, wants help, and they are confronted with police showing up.  It’s a scary situation,” explained Tracy Knight with Bread for the City.  “The police officers are not trained to be able to do additional assessments or act as social workers, as behavioral health specialists, or as EMTs.   So, even when they have the best of intentions to help the person get taken to a hospital for additional treatment, their only option is to handcuff that person and put that person in the back of a police car, which we all know is not an appropriate way to handle and work with someone who is having a medical emergency.”

ACLU Staff attorney Michael Perloff emphasized the cultural biases of this issue, and sensitivity needed to address workable solutions for vulnerable populations.

“The goal here is to achieve institutional change, to get the District to treat people with mental health disabilities with the respect they deserve, and the respect that they are not receiving right now,” said Perloff.  “I think that if that happens, when that happens, the benefits will be redounded throughout the District, primarily to people with mental health disabilities, but also to community service organizations like Bread, that try to serve them, and now are having fewer resources to do that because the District isn’t doing it’s part.”

In the meantime, residents battling mental health disabilities, and the organizations and family members who support them, struggle to receive the help they need due to scarce resources throughout the city’s infrastructure.

“Nationwide and in the District, people with mental health disabilities, particularly people with mental health disabilities who are also from Black and Brown communities, are among the most marginalized people in our society,” said Perloff.  “They are people who are castigated as risks, as threats, but they are humans, they’re our neighbors, they’re our brothers, our sisters, our community members.  

“I think what we are facing is a reckoning of decades of neglect and pushing to the side the very serious problems of mental health.  Our hope is that this lawsuit and the advocacy initiative which is related will bring to the light a lot of the community members who deserve much better than they are receiving.”

The D.C. Mayor’s office has not issued a response to the federal lawsuit.

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