When Porter Burks began to experience a mental health crisis on October 2, his family called 911 in hopes of receiving help for the 20-year-old who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Instead, five Detroit police officers arrived at the home, where they fired 38 rounds at Burks, killing him and leaving his family forever shattered.
The horror that haunts this family is unfortunately not uncommon in America. Far too often, people who call for emergency help when experiencing or witnessing a mental health crisis encounter armed police who arrest, injure or kill those who simply need help.
People living with mental illness and their loved ones deserve more. We need law enforcement, prosecutors, health experts and community leaders to come together to chart a new path forward in responding to mental health crises. And a recently released national toolkit offers a roadmap on how we get there.
4 out of 10 incarcerated people have a history of mental illness
About 20% of adults in the United States are believed to suffer from mental illness, with a quarter living with serious mental illness.
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Despite research indicating that the vast majority of these people pose no threat to their communities, they are vastly overrepresented at all stages of the criminal justice system – around 40% of those incarcerated have a history of mental illness.
This disparity is perhaps most notable in fatal encounters with law enforcement. The police are too often the autopilot response to a mental health crisis, and they frequently escalate the situation. People with serious untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed when approached by law enforcement and are estimated to be involved in at least one in four of these fatal encounters .
This year, police have killed nearly 100 people during mental health or welfare checks.
Increase in the number of suicides in prisons and prisons
The results can also be devastating when people with mental illness are arrested and put behind bars, not only separating them from support systems, but also placing them in destabilizing environments. More than 60% of people with a history of mental illness receive no treatment in prison.
These factors compound the challenges individuals face when reintegrating into their communities.
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Each year, we also see hundreds of people tragically end their lives while incarcerated. According to federal data, from 2001 to 2019, the number of suicides increased 85% in state prisons, 61% in federal prisons, and 13% in local prisons.
Existing systems to prevent self-harm are woefully inadequate. In October, a 28-year-old man in Rikers committed suicide while in a mental health observation unit. In Houston, a man hanged himself in his cell last month, and earlier this year a man committed suicide by repeatedly banging his head against the walls of his cell after a previous suicide attempt.
Incidents like these have led courts in Arizona and Louisiana to find that inadequate care and horrific conditions violate constitutional rights.
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These questions couldn’t be more timely. The prevalence of mental health issues has worsened due to isolation and loss over the past three years. Our leaders must invest in new strategies grounded in public health – not punishment – that will provide treatment and support rather than further trauma.
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A critical step in addressing the needs of people with mental illness is removing law enforcement from the front lines of crisis response. Interventions such as mental health crisis helplines (such as the new national 988 number) and mobile crisis teams enable individuals to receive immediate support from trained and trauma-informed staff.
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Comprehensive non-police responder models, such as CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, and Denver’s STAR program are equipped to respond in place of police in a variety of crisis situations, dramatically reducing violent encounters with law enforcement. order.
In 2019, CAHOOTS responded to approximately 24,000 calls and requested police support in only 311 cases, or just 1.3% of calls. These approaches not only benefit individuals, but also free up law enforcement capacity so officers can focus on serious crimes.
Police and prosecutors also need to work together to find ways to keep people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system. We should be diverting cases and directing individuals to treatment rather than resorting to arrest.
When an individual is arrested, prosecutors must screen for mental illness and determine whether an individual would be better served by a diversion from the system, or diversion and an alternative to incarceration programs.
And if people with mental illness are incarcerated, they should receive skilled care while inside and be connected to community services upon their reintegration.
The good news is that we know what strategies work – and we’re seeing more and more communities nationwide choosing these proactive approaches that emphasize compassionate treatment rather than punishment, which improves outcomes for the individual and his community. But we need more prosecutors, law enforcement and local leaders to recognize that responding to mental illness with violence and incarceration only worsens the damage.
When a person is in crisis and needs help, we have a choice: we can keep trying to incarcerate to get mental health issues out of our country or we can respond with humanity and care, saving lives. and creating healthier and safer communities.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988, the National Mental Health Helpline, for confidential 24/7 support or chat at 988lifeline.org.
Sarah George is a state attorney for Chittenden County, Vermont. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, former federal prosecutor and author of “Change from Within: Reimagining the 21st-Century Attorney.” Brendan Cox is a retired police chief from Albany, New York.
This is part of a USA TODAY Opinion series on police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 looking at qualified immunity and continues in 2022 looking at various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.
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