Researchers concluded that investments in behavioral health data systems could lay the foundation for early solid warnings systems to identify crises and target responses across all levels of the behavioral health system. (Damilareadeyemi via Wikimedia Commons)
Researchers concluded that investments in behavioral health data systems could lay the foundation for early solid warnings systems to identify crises and target responses across all levels of the behavioral health system. (Damilareadeyemi via Wikimedia Commons)

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Finan Berhe, Frances Garrett and Angelo Quinto are just a few among the numerous people who were killed during an interaction with law enforcement while undergoing a mental health crisis at the time of their death. Across the District, the D.C. Crisis Coalition is fighting for the revamping of mental health crisis response services to prevent the killings, and mishandling of a vulnerable population.

According to the report, “Overlooked in the Undercounted,” from the Treatment Advocacy Center, people who are left with untreated severe mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter in comparison to other civilians stopped or approached by law enforcement.  Within the District, during the fiscal year 2022, 911 dispatched over 36,000 mental health calls to MPD, but only 327 calls to mental health service call centers.  The gap in available services to address the issue runs wide. 

Mental health professionals find that relying on police as the standard, or “de facto” crisis responders is an often unsafe route, as just a quick presence of officers is generally enough to agitate people facing a crisis.  ACLU-D.C. Staff Attorney Michael Perloff, working in conjunction with the D.C. Crisis Coalition to facilitate change in the District’s mental health crisis response system, highlights the fundamentally unsuitable procedure of relying on law enforcement as the first line of defense for residents facing mental health issues.

“This is not just a training problem, because no matter how well trained an officer is, they still have a gun, they still have a badge, and they still have all the badges of history that cause people who see them to say, “this is someone coming to involve me in the criminal justice system.”  And indeed in many cases, we see people who are having crises getting arrested improperly,” explained Perloff.  “In the District, we’ve had practitioners tell us that before the police officer begins to engage, people in crisis will sometimes just run away, and that means that person is not getting the services they need.” 

A Call For Help Gone Wrong

Charnal Chaney, founder of BOLD Yoga LLC, and staunch advocate for the treatment, and protection of residents suffering from mental health illnesses, recalls herself once in the grips of a frightening experience of being met with contentious law enforcement practices during a domestic violence incident. 

A heated argument quickly turned violent, as Chaney found herself strangled to the point of losing consciousness, thankfully regaining her awareness to call local emergency services for help to remove the abuser from her home.  Unfortunately, the visit took a sharp turn upon arrival, as police officers took immediate action in questioning Chaney in front of her abuser, a protocol that should have been handled after the abuser was removed from her space, and became further angered when she did not reveal what her significant other had done in hopes to prevent creating a greater issue.

“They [decided] they were going to take me to the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP), and immediately my anxiety started going off. They grabbed me by my hands and my feet, dragged me to the car, threw me in the backseat, never really took me to CPAP, they wound up taking me to United Medical.” 

The lack of training and protocol exercised on behalf of law enforcement made the incident a jarring, traumatizing experience for Chaney, adding to her severe anxiety intensifying after such a volatile domestic incident.  

“It’s not just a training issue, it’s that police officers are not the right people for this challenge.  We don’t send letter carriers to put out fires, and the same thing is here.  We need to have the right government employee handling the right type of problem, and in the context of mental health, that’s just not police officers,” Perloff explains. 

A Reformed Approach to Addressing Mental Health Crises 

The overwhelming dangers of mishandling residents facing mental health illness has become the steam behind advocacy geared toward creating an effective District mental health crisis response system, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSAH).

The suggested crisis response to mental health outbreaks across the city includes: having someone to talk to, primarily being a crisis call center, to identify calls for someone to be dispatched to the scene, and provide in-person services.  Similarly, there’s a  need for someone to respond, such as mental health professionals who can go to the scene and provide care.  Lastly, people suffering from mental health illness often need a place to go where they can have a calm and quiet space to recover, especially for those who are displaced.  

Despite the District having crisis call centers, the problem lies in these services being grossly underfunded and understaffed with limited services, sometimes having several hour-long wait times for professionals to show up to the scene.  Oftentimes, residents call 911 as a first call for help, however, emergency dispatch centers do not have the proper training or even the authority to dispatch many calls to the centers that do exist.  

“[Overall], the police shouldn’t be handling mental health issues.  We need mental health professionals, domestic violence professionals, and people who are experts in those fields to show up in those situations and will know how to handle them.  The police have a different job,” said Chaney.

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