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Policing the USA

Police shouldn't handle mental health calls. Reform is critical for public safety.

Giving community organizations a bigger role will allow officers more time to focus on the core functions of their job – serving the public by protecting life, liberty and property.

Currie Myers and Ja’Ron Smith
Opinion contributors

"Mental illness should not be your ticket to death."  

That is what Caroline Ouko said after watching video footage of her son's death while in police custody. Irvo Otieno, a 28-year-old aspiring musician, was reportedly suffering from a mental health crisis when he was placed under an emergency custody order. But like many others before him, Otieno did not receive the appropriate help from the criminal justice system. Instead, that system cost him his life. 

There is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the events surrounding this tragedy. Nevertheless, it is a stark reminder that there is an urgent need to improve how communities address mental health crises.

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People with serious mental illness are booked into jails 2 million times a year

Police are not the appropriate responders to every mental health crisis. Law enforcement should be focused on preventing and solving serious crime, and are often not sufficiently trained and equipped to respond to crisis situations involving people suffering a mental health emergency.  

Caroline Ouko, holds a portrait of her son Irvo Otieno in Dinwiddie, Va., on March 16, 2023. Otieno, 28, died on March 6 at a hospital where he had been taken by seven Henrico County sheriff's deputies. Surveillance video from the admissions area showed the deputies and three hospital guards restraining Otieno with their bodies for about 12 minutes.

Local policymakers must create an environment that enables better and more comprehensive community mental health services that address mental health needs before they become crises. And when crises do occur, we should have appropriate responses that do not rely solely on law enforcement.  

Each year, 2 million jail bookings involve people with serious mental illness. About 40% of incarcerated people have a history of mental illness. What's more, 63% of those with a history of mental illness never receive treatment while incarcerated.  

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Police and the criminal justice system at large have a critical role in ensuring public safety. But they do not have the same knowledge, training and expertise as mental health professionals and should not be the first responders for most situations involving a person experiencing a mental illness crisis.  

According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Crisis Intervention Team Training is a "40-hour curriculum taught over five consecutive days." A week in a classroom is simply not enough to prepare law enforcement for managing a problem as complex as mental illness, especially considering the types of high-adrenaline, and often violent, situations that police officers must deal with on a regular basis. 

Officers need more training so they can better support mental health professionals on calls where their presence may still be required. 

Community-based mental health care is critical to public safety

The police need support themselves, too. They cannot handle mental health crises on their own. Giving community organizations a bigger role responding to mental health crises will allow police more time to focus on the core functions of their job – serving the public by protecting life, liberty and property. 

Fortunately, there are already many examples of what good looks like:

►From a prevention perspective, programs such as Black Men Heal, which provides free, tailored and culturally competent mental health treatment and community resources to men of color, are tackling mental health in underserved communities that have been left behind.  

►The Headstrong Project is another example of a community-based program that has filled a need for mental health treatment. It has provided close to 3,000 veterans with confidential, stigma-free, evidence-based treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. And it is still growing. 

Give an Hour provides pro bono mental health services "for people who have experienced humanmade trauma." Its services have reached a million people, and it aims to reach 8 million by 2025.  

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►Baltimore is not a city usually held up as an example of something done right in the criminal justice sphere. But the city has developed an innovative mental health crisis response alternative to police that shows great promise. Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. provides the city with a comprehensive system of care – ranging from mobile crisis teams and in-home support to community and police education services. Its mobile crisis teams are particularly unique; they consist of mental health professionals (psychiatrists, social workers and nurses) who will meet citizens at any location in the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide immediate assessments and treatment. Even residential care if necessary.

►The Council of State Governments is a great resource for communities looking to invest in "responder programs that position health professionals and community members trained in crisis response as first responders." It provides a toolkit for jurisdictions looking to make a change and even tracks successful programs.  

Currie Myers, Ph.D., MBA, is a criminologist and a former sheriff of Johnson County, Kansas.

While crisis response programs continue to undergo fine-tuning and development, police departments should take full advantage of the tools they have available now by implementing evidence-based policing. 

ForceMetrics, for example, compiles relevant data from across multiple platforms at the click of a button. It allows 911 operators to see whether a caller has been tagged as having a mental illness and helps them better determine the most appropriate response teams. It also provides that same information to law enforcement, priming them and giving context to a situation before they arrive on the scene.

Such tools can help law enforcement better tailor their responses to people in crisis.  

Ja’Ron Smith leads the Public Safety Solutions for America coalition.

The criminal justice system cannot tackle the growing mental health crisis on its own. There are other, proven solutions out there. It's time we use evidence and commonsense public policy to make meaningful changes that protect communities. 

Currie Myers, Ph.D., MBA, is a criminologist and a former sheriff of Johnson County, Kansas. Ja’Ron Smith, who leads the Public Safety Solutions for America coalition, was the 2020 recipient of the Bipartisan Justice Award for his work in the Trump administration and is co-author of the forthcoming book "Underserved: Harnessing the Principles of Lincoln’s Vision for Reconstruction for Today’s Forgotten Communities."  

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