Approximately 10 percent of police calls involve a person with mental illness, making police the nation’s de facto first responders to mental health crises. Despite being on the front lines, some officers do not have the training to recognize nor appropriately respond to a mental health crisis.
A crisis like attempted suicide.
One such encounter was during a fight with his girlfriend. When the police arrived, Coutinho was found lying on a bed with a knife and fresh gash to his forearm.
The officer retreated, drew his gun and demanded Coutinho drop the knife. Instead, Coutinho moved toward the officer. Believing his life was in danger, and knowing he had little room to create a safe distance between himself and Coutinho, the officer discharged his weapon twice.
Coutinho was pronounced dead at the scene.
Stories like Bryce Coutinho’s are too common for people living with mental illness and too often they end in loss of life with sensational news headlines as collateral.
More than 42 million American adults are affected by mental illnesses every year. Of those, two million will be jailed. These startling statistics drive home a shameful fact: People experiencing a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter police than medical professionals.
People living with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to die as a result of a police encounter compared to the general public. In 2017, one in four killed by police were living with a mental illness.
To address these tragic statistics, we need to supply adequate tools that police can use when they respond to mental health emergencies, so they can do so in a safe, effective and caring manner that de-escalated tense situations. Additionally, we need to provide the appropriate skills for police to care for themselves.
It is critical that police receive specialized mental health training — and Massachusetts is leading the way.
Last fall, over 180 police chiefs, all members of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, pledged to train 100 percent of their officers in Mental Health First Aid by committing to the One Mind Campaign — a bold initiative of the International Chiefs of Police Association — to ensure that officers have the skills to safely and responsibly respond to situations involving people with mental illness or substance use disorders. A key component of the pledge is training 100 percent of all sworn officers in Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety.
We are part of a larger trend: The number of officers across the country who have taken Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety has reached nearly 100,000.
The trainings continue to be waitlisted, demonstrating the interest from law enforcement in helping people in crisis — to protect both the person and the officer.
Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety is an actionable public safety training program that gives police officers a simple, effective way to intervene during any mental health crisis, from an immediate crisis that endangers the public or the officer to non-crisis situations, like approaching someone who is exhibiting symptoms of a mental illness or overdose.
It equips every officer with the necessary skills to recognize the symptoms of mental illnesses and substance use, engage the person in crisis, de-escalate the incident and connect the person to needed care.
The course has also helped many officers in their personal lives by providing strategies to help themselves, their families and their partners.
Ultimately, Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety’s goal is to prevent tragedies, decrease the need for arrests and incarcerations for people with mental illness, reduce repeat detentions and help police officers connect with appropriate resources that can help.
Let’s stop responding to those living with mental illnesses as offenders and start meeting their needs as patients. Let’s protect our officers and our communities at large. Let’s make sure every officer in America is trained in Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety.
William G. Brooks III is the chief of police for the Norwood Police Department in Massachusetts.