Recently, there has been a rash of fatal police encounters involving people who were experiencing a mental health crisis.  Concerned family members often call law enforcement when they feel out of options and think that their loved ones could possibly be a danger to themselves or others.  The problem is that there is a lack of alternatives for these families and community members when they need help resolving an acute mental health crisis rather than blood thirsty, killer cops.

Jason Nichols

Jason Nichols

There is racial a racial component to police encounters due to the fact that Black, Brown, and Red people are more likely to be stopped by law enforcement. In addition, African Americans and Latinos use mental health services at half the rate of Whites, according to studies. However, mental illness transcends racial boundaries.  The recent deaths of Alfred Olango, Melissa Ventura, and Anthony Nunez shine light on mental illness and police shootings.  In all three cases, family members called out of concern for the victim’s well-being and all ended with their bodies riddled with bullets.

Campaign Zero and others who seek police reform are correct in calling on officers to be trained in how to adapt to a situation where a suspect is mentally unwell. There are situations where they must deal with people suffering a mental illness or break down, and need the tools to peacefully restrain them. However, the mere presence of police sirens, loud aggressive verbal commands,  and weapons can be unnerving and intensify the psychosis of someone in crisis.

However, the primary issue will remain even if police receive more training.  For example, Campaign Zero calls for 40 hours of “crisis intervention” training for police officers.  This change would certainly be a step in the right direction.  Yet, in the state of Maryland to be a licensed mental health professional like a licensed clinical social worker for instance, you must have 3,000 hours of work experience and receive 144 hours of direct face to face supervision.  These requirements highlight the fact that police are not mental health professionals nor should they be expected to be.

The fundamental problem is that families that recognize that someone is having a mental health crisis feel the only people they can call who will respond swiftly and at anytime are law enforcement.  From childhood, we are taught that the answer to any emergency is to dial 911.  There needs to be a nationwide on-call mental health tactical team that families can turn to when a loved one is having a crisis, in lieu of law enforcement.  The units would be comprised of mental health professionals who are trained in how to de-escalate a situation involving someone with a known mental illness.  The number or name of the group should be known to all Americans, since 26.2% of Americans have a diagnosable mental illness within a given year.  Calling the police should be a last resort carried out by mental health professionals when feel they are out of options or techniques and force may be necessary for public safety.  It may be easier to train this mental health tactical team to deploy non-lethal weapons, than to train police to deal with mental health issues.

Alfred Olango’s sister painfully yelled a familiar refrain, “I called police to help him, not to kill him!” Unfortunately, police were ill equipped to do so.  In the case of Anthony Nunez, the police arrived with the noble intention of talking him down from a suicide attempt.  Within 15 minutes, 18 year old Nunez lay dead after the police shot him.  We certainly ask for law enforcement to take systemic responsibility by training officers to deal with these situations as first responders.  The Police must be versatile and know CPR as well in order to save lives.  However, we have EMTs, ambulances, and physicians to deal specifically with people having a physical health emergency.  The same approach should be taken with mental health in this country.

Jason Nichols is a full-time lecturer in the African American studies department at the University of Maryland College Park and the current editor-in-chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of hip-hop studies.