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Another Voice: Police are ill-suited to handling mental health crises

Another Voice: Police are ill-suited to handling mental health crises

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By Diane Elze, Diane R. Bessel, Kim Zittel-Barr and Sabrina Musson

The police shooting of Willie Henley in Buffalo and the death of Daniel Prude in Rochester has thrown cities’ responses to the mental health crisis into the national spotlight.

These cases have exposed a long-standing problem: 25% of people killed by police have a severe mental illness. It is time for Buffalo to follow the lead of Los Angeles, Denver, and Eugene, Ore., and stop using the police as first responders to mental health crises and allow social workers and mental health professionals to respond to these calls without police involvement.

As mental health professionals working within a community experiencing complex traumas, many at the hands of the police, we uphold the principles of trauma-informed care, the foundation of which is safety.

While some argue that a police presence is necessary to prevent violence, numerous cases around the country demonstrate that it is often the police who make a situation unsafe, by escalating tensions with threats or by reacting with violence unnecessarily and prematurely.

Police are primarily trained to use force and physical control, while most situations are better resolved using de-escalation techniques. Every day in this city, mental health professionals in group homes, homeless shelters and other community settings successfully resolve crisis situations without using violence and without calling the police.

Professional social workers and mental health professionals are bound by codes of ethics, which outline our professions’ core values and standards, many of which do not align with the Buffalo Police Department’s methods. Professionals who violate these codes can lose their license to practice.

As calls for police accountability become louder, we do not believe that the mental health professions, with many accountability structures in place, can effectively and ethically work in a system so pervasively lacking in accountability without jeopardizing the integrity of the professions. When mental health professionals join police departments, they become “guests” in that system and must follow the rules of the host. We cannot ethically work in police departments that traumatize and kill so many of our neighbors of color.

Mental illness is not a crime. Our community members in crisis need care, not punishment. Mental health concerns should be met with public health responses, not criminal justice responses. We implore local leaders to act now to create a police-free response to community mental health needs and to reject the latest atrocities under consideration, namely Tasers and BolaWraps.

The authors are educators in social work or counseling at the University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State and Daemen College.

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