At what point do our laws – and law enforcement officers – treat someone in a mental health crisis not as a “victim,” but a “threat?”
This question plays out routinely across our nation’s institutions, including our hospitals, prisons, schools, and courtrooms. In their day-to-day work, law enforcement officials take action over the care, treatment, or custody of individuals with mental health disabilities.1)An estimated 14 percent of individuals in U.S. jails and prisons have a serious mental illness, “which means that, for most officers, interacting with individuals with mental illness is an almost daily occurrence.” Factors such as the safety of the individual, the officers, and the public can complicate an already challenging situation. The increasing presence of lethal weapons carried by officers within treatment facilities can escalate matters further.2)According to a 2014 national survey, 52 percent of medical centers reported that their security personnel carried handguns, and 47 percent used Tasers. This is over twice the estimated amount from studies just three years earlier. Too often, the people and communities involved can find their lives permanently altered due to the consequences of a split-second decision.
Of the nearly 1,000 people shot and killed by police in the United States in 2016, 25 percent exhibited signs of mental illness. And, over 30 percent of those killed were young people between the ages of 18 and 30.
Education and training around mental health can help law enforcement officials work towards outcomes that value life and avoid the unnecessary criminalization of people with disabilities and mental illness. In addition, our nation’s laws and policies should – and can – be used to ensure that those with disabilities and individuals in crisis are guaranteed fairness and equality.
Since 1990, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protection for individuals with disabilities who come in contact with the criminal justice system. Last week, the Justice Department issued guidance for criminal justice officers and institutions to treat people with mental health disabilities in compliance with the law. In summary, the DOJ technical assistance resource contains:
1) Key provisions of the ADA and examples of how criminal justice entities (e.g., police, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, jails, juvenile justice officials, and corrections agencies) can abide by them;
2) Recommendations for training criminal justice personnel and implementing policies and protocols that serve the needs of individuals with mental health needs and/or disabilities;
3) Recommended practices and additional governmental resources for situations such as crisis response, diversion, and disciplinary proceedings; and
4) State-specific examples on the implementation of community-based treatments (Mississippi, Delaware, New Hampshire) and use-of-force trainings that incorporate mental health education and de-escalation strategies (Tennessee, Washington).
Under federal law, state and local governments have a duty to prevent the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities. The ADA Title II guidance can help our officers and institutions honor this obligation and the wellbeing of all citizens.
Public support and education are needed to fully realize these rights and protections. Get involved by reading the ADA guidance, sharing it with colleagues, or raising awareness at your local city council or mental health board.
There is no more urgent time for policies governing mental health and law enforcement to emphasize safe, equitable, and community-focused solutions. If followed, the DOJ’s Title II recommendations have the potential to decrease recidivism, improve outcomes, and save lives.
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|1.||↑||An estimated 14 percent of individuals in U.S. jails and prisons have a serious mental illness, “which means that, for most officers, interacting with individuals with mental illness is an almost daily occurrence.”|
|2.||↑||According to a 2014 national survey, 52 percent of medical centers reported that their security personnel carried handguns, and 47 percent used Tasers. This is over twice the estimated amount from studies just three years earlier.|