Story at a glance
- New legislation would make it easier for state and local governments to create mental health first responder units to respond to distress calls.
- The bill was introduced in the Senate by former presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker.
- The bill provides for funding through a grant program and assistance from experts.
Congress wants to make it easier for state and local governments to defund the police by instead funding mental health services and empowering them to respond to emergency calls instead of armed officers.
“We should be connecting people in crisis to care, not tossing them in jail,” Rep. Katie Porter, who reintroduced the bill on Thursday, said in a statement. “Mental illness is not a crime, and we have to stop treating it like one. Most police officers are not trained to care for individuals experiencing mental health crises, which too often tragically leads to unnecessary violence.”
The Mental Health Justice Act has the backing of Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
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Since 2015, nearly a quarter of all people killed by police officers in America have had a known mental illness, according to a Washington Post database. Those who are arrested are often charged with minor, nonviolent offenses, argue the lawmakers behind this bill, further overcrowding jail and prison systems and failing to address the root of the problem.
“The way we've criminalized mental health disorders and developmental disabilities has led to an increase in police-related violence and, in serious cases, death,” Rep. Tony Cárdenas said in a statement. “We must drastically change policing in America – that means not treating everyone as a threat. This legislation will change emergency response protocols so that mental health providers are first on the scene of a mental health emergency. This will make our neighborhoods safer, and build trust between police and the communities they serve.”
Divesting public safety services such as these from armed law enforcement is part of the call to “defund the police,” which has gained momentum in the last year. Berkely, Calif., is the latest city to invest in specialized care units to respond to mental health calls, joining Portland, Denver and New York City.
So far, it seems to be working. In Denver, health professionals responded to 748 calls that required no help from police, both freeing up local law enforcement and limiting opportunities for a distress call to go wrong. The proposed legislation would not only provide funding for such efforts but also provide technical assistance from experts through the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
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