Faculty Publications


Expansion of the Police Role in Responding to Mental Health Crises Over the Past Fifty Years: Driving Factors, Race Inequities and the Need to Rebalance Roles

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Tragic police shootings of people experiencing mental health crises, along with recognition of the overrepresentation of people with serious mental illnesses in the criminal legal system, have garnered several decades of research and policy attention. Substantial resources have been focused on improving law enforcement’s ability to safely provide response to people experiencing mental health crises in the community, diverting people with serious mental illnesses away from the criminal legal system, and providing mental health focused programming within the criminal legal system. Despite these efforts, overrepresentation of people with serious mental illnesses remains across all points along the criminal legal continuum. Black persons and other persons of color, who are already over-policed and incarcerated, are disproportionately impacted. It is only recently, following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent advocacy of Black Lives Matter protesters, that policymakers have begun to take seriously demands to not just reform police, but to reimagine public safety and provide the public with alternatives to police when they are in need of help. Just weeks after George Floyd’s death, Rayshard Brooks, another Black man, was killed by an Atlanta police officer responding to a call that there was someone asleep in a Wendy’s drive thru—leading some to ask: What if there were a non police response that could have been called to drive Mr. Brooks somewhere to sober up? Or a non-police response that could have been called by family to help Danielle T. Prude, another Black man who was killed by police while he was experiencing a psychosis? Not only are police not well-equipped to respond to such crises, police response too often causes harm, whether it be through the use of force or the fear, anxiety, and humiliation that often accompanies police presence. This begs the question: How did police become the default responders to mental health issues in the first place? The answer to this question is complex.