Student Post: It’s Time for Raleigh Police to Defer Mental Health Crises to Trained Professionals

Editor's note: There are several Duke University and Duke Law students working with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice this semester, including some who are working on a "blog team." Those students are learning about the intersection of the criminal system with communications. As part of a recent assignment, four students wrote op-ed-style articles examining the use of police force in some North Carolina jurisdictions, and researched opportunities for reform. Their work will be published throughout this week. 

By: De'Ja Wood, a Duke University undergraduate student

This summer, the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor sparked a national conversation about policing and the extent to which police should be present in communities. In this discourse, abolitionists began to encourage people to imagine a world without police, in which the first step includes defunding the police and investing into community resources that will address core issues that lead to criminalization.

A number of reformers pointed to the intersection of disability and police violence to highlight one area where police could minimize their presence if funds were diverted to resources that prioritize public health and well-being. These activists argue that police should not be involved in mental health crises, as police officers are not trained mental health professionals.

Charleena Lyles. Marcus-David Peters. Ezell Ford. Deborah Danner. Tanisha Anderson. Keith Lamont Scott. Miles Hall. These are just a few of the names of Black people who have been killed by the police while experiencing mental health crises. Too often, police officers’ response to mental health crises is deadly.

The Raleigh Police Department details a use of force continuum which includes the following, in order from the lowest to highest level of force: physical presence in order to assert authority and “control low threat situations;” verbal commands to give subjects an opportunity to comply if there is not an imminent threat; restraining techniques excluding choke holds, which are considered a use of deadly force; pepper gas, which can be used at any point in the continuum if the subject becomes “aggressive;” striking techniques, which involve the use of the police or riot baton non-vital body parts; less lethal weapons, such as specialty impact munitions (like rubber bullet guns) or conducted energy devices (like tasers); and deadly force, which is defined as “the level of force that can cause death or serious physical injury,” including the discharge of a firearm.

The police department’s policy notes that it is up to the discretion of the officer to decide the use of force needed along the continuum using the “totality of the circumstances.”

The department offers general direction to guide police officers in their understanding of when certain levels of force may be applicable and how certain weapons should be used. For example, for the “less lethal weapons” category, the policy reads: “Specialty impact munitions, specifically the Exact Impact 1006, a foam projectile, may be used when it is not safe for an officer to leave cover and get close to a suspect,” such as when “subduing mentally ill persons who are dangerous to themselves or others.”

Mental health is not a criminal issue but rather a public health issue; therefore, police, whose job is to serve and protect the community at-large from potential, criminal threats should not be tasked with dealing with community members in mental health crises but rather professionals who are trained and able to de-escalate situations and provide people with the proper care needed. With this in mind, the Raleigh Police Department should consider recusing itself from involvement in some mental health crises situations.

Furthermore, the city of Raleigh should consider investing in alternative resources to support community members in mental health crises, such as mobile crisis response teams with linkage to crisis response or psychiatric urgent care centers.

One example of such an alternative exists in Eugene, Oregon. White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon runs a 24/7 mobile crisis intervention program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) that sends mental health personnel to respond to calls involving people who may be in mental health crisis in Eugene or its neighboring city, Springfield. Police are only called if the mental health team believes that their personal safety or public safety is in danger. In 2019, CAHOOTS called police for back up in about 150 out of 24,000 calls made to the clinic total, according to an NPR interview.

CAHOOTS is also a much more cost-effective approach to mental health crises. CAHOOTS' budget in 2019 was capped at $2.1 million, while the Eugene and Springfield Police Department annual budgets are $70 million and $20 million, respectively. With just over 2% of the Eugene and Springfield police departments’ annual budgets, CAHOOTS team answered 17% of the department’s overall call volume.

Mental health experts can also be first responders, not just police. It is time that we begin to reimagine first response to prioritize public health and rehabilitation rather than punishment.