Roundtable: There are Better Alternatives to Police Response in Behavioral Crises

By Ruthie Kesri

Responding safely to behavioral health crises requires sensitivity, extensive training and de-escalation practice. Police have become the de facto first responders to those crises despite rarely receiving adequate training to safely and effectively handle the situation.

The Wilson Center recently hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic. The event brought together three preeminent criminal justice experts – Dr. Tracie Keesee, Co-founder and Senior Vice President of Justice Initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity; Timothy Black, Director of Consulting for White Bird Clinic; and Christy Lopez, Professor from Practice at Georgetown Law.

They addressed pressing issues in the inadequate police response training to behavioral health crises, focusing on alternatives. The moderator, Dr. Marvin Swartz, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke, opened the conference asking each panelist to speak to their experiences with alternative police response models, and particularly the nuances in their application, scalability, and sustainability.

Keesee kicked off the conversation explaining how the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) works to address the needs of minority communities through “unpacking [communities] from criminalizing social behaviors” with the “promise that we can do things differently.” Keesee emphasized that alternative models must be “replicable” and adaptable to the communities they serve. CPE achieves this sort of scalability through focusing on the communities it serves.

The discussion then moved to Black’s work at White Bird Clinic. He spoke to the “institutionalization of police response” on the federal level, which demanded “a very profound need for mental health services oriented in a different way than what was traditionally offered.” White Bird endeavors to meet this need through their novel CAHOOTS first response mental health mitigation team that typically responds before law enforcement to behavioral health crises and serves as a “layer of insulation” between those suffering from mental-health-related issues and the police.

Lopez pivoted the conversation to focus on how when system-changing models are addressed, folks must “make sure that we are thinking about alternatives to police.” Until there is a behavioral health support service that is available 24/7, people will continue to rely on the police during behavioral crises.

In the remaining time, the presenters touched on how Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) is not sufficient for police to master all the skills needed to effectively manage mental health crises. Keesee said while she found CIT to be a vital tool in her service as a law enforcement officer, it is not a replacement for mental health service individuals trained to deal with such situations. Keesee then emphasized how generational trauma continues to affect Black and Brown people’s understanding of police officers and, ultimately, cops should not be in places where they will create more trauma than good.

The session concluded with a Q&A discussion where the panelists highlighted the need for community learning and accountability following untoward outcomes and the urgency of connecting communities with the resources they need to effectively and compassionately address behavioral crises.

For further information regarding alternative response models in North Carolina, check out the CAHOOTS Act.

Ruthie Kesri is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.