The New Frontline:  Alternatives to Police for Mental Health Crises

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After the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin and the subsequent protests against Black Lives Matters that shook the summer of 2020, conversations about police accountability, racial justice and calls for “police discovery” resurfaced, or the role of Unleash law enforcement agencies in responding to community emergencies, especially when it comes to mental health, have intensified since then.

Asantewaa Boykin, a trained psychiatric nurse and social activist, describes a situation that is not surprising to many people today:

“There is a whole list of people in Sacramento alone who were killed by police in the middle of a mental crisis, died in police custody because they needed help and ended up in prison cells.”

Boykin is a co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP). She spoke to the Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR) about APTP’s response to police-continuing violence in her volunteer-run community, Mental Health First (MHF) Sacramento.

The main goal of MHF Sacramento, launched in January 2020, is to intercept and reduce police contact with community members. They provide support and services throughout the Sacramento community, available 24 hours, seven days a week, with medical volunteers: doctors, nurses, clinicians, and medical students. The shifts last twelve hours, and their volunteering in addition to their regular working hours shows the need for the program. Boykin speaks about the resounding positive response to MHF Sacramento:

“We have been well received by the national community and seen as a framework to look at. I think it is because we are working outwardly to eradicate police dependency. People called and said: ‘We want something like this in our city.’ “

The back of the van is loaded with medicines and supplies by volunteers.

While MHF Sacramento runs completely without the involvement of the police, other similar programs across North America have chosen to work with the police.

The Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT) in Toronto, Canada is one such program. The program has been running for over 20 years and is a partner of 6 hospitals across the city with the Toronto Police Service (TPS). MCIT acts as a secondary mental emergency response, with a police officer and plainclothes nurse working together to provide assistance.

MCIT program coordinators Leah Dunbar and Police Sergeant August Bonomo spoke to TMHR and stated that in practice MCIT is a co-response program, with possible plans to become first responders to appropriate calls. Currently, an emergency dispatcher is requesting MCIT’s presence shortly after law enforcement officers dispatched calls involving mental health. There are currently no plans to remove the police presence on these calls. Bonomo says:

“The main job of the officer on the MCIT team is to ensure the nurse’s safety. If there are any safety issues, the nurse will stand by until it is deemed safe for the nurse to come in and do the exam. “

According to Bonomo and Dunbar, reports used to determine the effectiveness of the program have shown the program to be successful. The feedback from the people supported by the program, their families and the hospital partnerships has been positive. However, critics argue that greater systematic change is needed and efforts should be made to develop a new model that does not involve local police.

The City of Denver provides another example of these new approaches: a multi-faceted crisis response consisting of two alternative police programs. The first is a co-responder program with a licensed psychiatrist and a police officer, similar to Toronto’s MCIT, and has been running since 2016.

A clinician-paramedic pairing forms the second, a pilot program (started June 2020) called the Denver Support Team Assisted Response (STAR). The Denver STAR offers an alternative to emergency calls that completely eliminates the need for the police force. The STAR van can be seen across the city and responds to emergency calls with a low level, poor visual acuity and low risk. When arriving at the scene of the crime, dressed in civilian clothes, the services are tailored to the needs of the individual. The STAR support team is currently looking for creative solutions, whether it’s connecting someone with community support or just providing snacks and water.

A volunteer helps an elderly man into a car with a walker.

Carleigh Sailon is Program Manager for Criminal Justice Services at the Mental Health Center of Denver and has helped develop STAR. She explains to the TMHR that security is determined by a 911 triage system: a decision tree in which calls are routed to the appropriate team to ensure the best response for each situation. As of June 1, the system has filtered over 800 calls and to date not a single police security has been required.

With or without police involvement, the need to change the frontline response is clear, as Sailon explains:

“If we don’t have options to respond to the crisis, all of these calls end up on the police plate. Sending police and ambulances is expensive and doesn’t always solve the problem. So how can we ensure that people are connected to the right support? ”

– Sharon Bae, contributing writer

Feature: Maxim Hopman at Unsplash, Creative Commons
First: RODNAE Productions at Pexels, Creative Commons
Second: RODNAE Productions at Pexels, Creative Commons

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