When police officers encountered “Christopher” he was standing in the street, “speaking religious verses and arguing with himself” –naked.
In response to what police believed was “mental illness,” three officers attempted to handcuff him for the ride to a hospital for evaluation.
The Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police outlines the department’s failings when it comes to dealing with suspects who may have mental health issues. (Baltimore Police Department)
When he resisted by “attempting to grab and bite officers,” Christopher was stun gunned into submission. There were no documented attempts to de-escalate the situation.
By the time he arrived at a hospital, he was calm, but now both Christopher and two officers had physical injuries.
Christopher was never formally under arrest or charged with any crime. And his case, detailed in the Department of Justice’s investigation report on the Baltimore Police Department released in August, is not unique.
Calls for help with mental health are turning into unnecessary use of force cases by police nationwide, according to the report.
In addition to targeting African Americans for unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests, the DOJ said the “BPD’s use of force against individuals with mental health disabilities or experiencing crisis violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The report found that one in every four excessive force cases between 2010 and 2016 involved a person with mental illness or in a mental health crisis.
“Due to a lack of training and improper tactics, BPD officers end up in unnecessarily violent confrontations with these vulnerable individuals,” said the report.
Lt. Jarron Jackson told the AFRO that the BPD does have the Behavioral Emergency Services Team (BEST) program, which provides 40 hours of instruction to police academy trainees. The BEST program focuses on de-escalating mental health crisis calls and tying persons in need to mental health services- not the legal system.
Officers receive guidance on when to involve one of the local crisis intervention teams partnered with the BEST program and information on different mental health resources.
“Officers are taught how to deal with persons that are going through a mental health or emotional crisis,” said Jackson, but only hostage negotiations situations receive accompaniment by a mental health professional.
Though the BEST program became part of the police academy in 2010, the Department of Justice was still able to identify a clear pattern of injustice in dealings with Baltimore’s mentally ill.
The BEST program was in operation when “Christopher” was stunned in 2011. There is no evidence that anyone tried to reach out to members of the BEST program or a local crisis intervention team, according to the DOJ report.
“In too many of these calls, officers arrive at the homes of families, knowing they are being called to assist with a mental health incident, without a plan to account for the mental health issue,” read the report. “BPD has failed to make reasonable modifications in its policies, practices, and procedures to avoid discriminating against people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.”
Leaders in the mental healthcare field and some nominees from April’s primary election agree the system of handling calls for help with mental crisis or illness needs improvement.
Edgar Wiggins, founding executive director of the Baltimore Crisis Response, said of roughly 25,000 calls for his crisis team annually, “Calls from the police are very, very limited.”
“When police get calls about people in crisis they are concerned about crime. The law enforcement response is to get the situation under control,” said Wiggins. “They do an emergency petition and take that person to the emergency room. That’s not ideal.”
Wiggins’ organization helps train Baltimore City officers through the BEST program and said, “There is a movement to have a comprehensive intervention team (CIT) model- then you have comprehensive service.”
Zeke Cohen (D), poised to represent the first district, said many of the “…mentally ill are also struggling with homelessness addiction, job loss and other forms of trauma. There is no continuum of care. Providers work incredibly hard to address what comes in the ER door, but there should be a larger framework for dealing with mental illness and homelessness in our city.”
Sen. Catherine Pugh, who clenched the democratic nomination for mayor in the April primaries, told the AFRO “There are programs that are already in Baltimore when we talk about mental health issues.”
When asked if she was in favor of mental health professionals responding with police when advance knowledge identifies a mental health crisis or illness, Pugh said “Let me be real clear- I’m not the mayor yet.”