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GRAHAM: Policing mental health leads to far more harm than good

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To the credit of younger generations, there is an increasing awareness about mental health issues in the United States and the world. 

World Suicide Prevention Day was Sept. 10, with banners being posted on Instagram stories and testimonials being shared. Coming up this month is World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10. These designated days are designed as opportunities to increase awareness and change perspectives, but unfortunately, they are not enough to change the realities of those with mental illness. 

The Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago has an average daily population of 9,000 inmates, with an estimated 35% of them suffering from mental illness, according to a Vera Institute publication. This jail is Chicago’s largest mental health facility. Instead of countering this staggering statistic with funding for mental health services, Illinois cut this funding by $113.7 million between 2009 and 2012. This is not unique and has not changed since 2012. Not yet, at least.

This week, Jumaane D. Williams released a report proposing a new system for mental health services in New York City to prevent the city from having statistics similar to Chicago. This report clearly states that this was not published to bring shame to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) nor its officers. 

There are courses and training involved in emergency response to mental health crises which are not administered to police officers, as that is not in their job qualifications nor requirements. 

Yet, in 2018 alone, they received 179,569 emergency calls involving mental health crises. This is a flaw in the system, as it can lead to escalated situations in which both sides are forced out of their comfort zones, possibly leading to excessive force or unnecessary shootings. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement. The police are not equipped to handle these crises effectively, as it is simply not their job.

By utilizing law enforcement to combat mental health crises, individuals in this situation are automatically placed under a criminal umbrella. It is not a crime to have mental health issues. 

The report calls for increased investment in prevention of crises through the support of care centers, mental urgent care and safe havens. Increasing these institutional services would hopefully attack the mental health crisis at the front, stopping numerous crises that would require a response before they even occur.

For those that do reach crisis status, the report advocates for a non-criminal, non-law enforcement response system. This would be equipped with people trained specifically for Emotionally Disturbed Persons (EDPs) and others in a state of mental health crisis. 

Lastly, for a more prompt fix, the report calls for expedited Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for all NYPD officers. 

City & State New York followed up on this report, interviewing experts on policing to evaluate if the proposed solutions would be beneficial and practical.

Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, when asked about the proposal, highlighted a startling statistic — more than 1 in 4 people killed by police are suffering from mental health crises. This should not be a statistic that goes unnoticed, nor should police officers be blamed for this. It is a flaw in the system. Overall, the five experts interviewed all backed Williams’ proposals. 

There needs to be a distinction between public health and criminal justice. Those specializing in each are trained extremely differently, with completely separate backgrounds, educations and certificates. The two are not lumped together in school, nor should they be in practice. 

There is a stigma that mental illness and criminality are linked — that mental illness causes crime. That treating people in prisons for mental health issues will prevent their future involvement in crime. As highlighted by the Vera Institute of Justice, this is not necessarily effective. 

Rather, what needs to be addressed are the social determinants of ill health, and the infrastructural changes that may counter mental health crises. Placing those with mental health issues in prisons to be reformed by the system, harming them is not going to fix the problem at hand.

Unless society is trying to send a message that it is purely criminal to have a mental health crisis, there needs to be an alteration in the system. Increased policing will not improve mental health.

Jess Graham is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in  political science. Her column, "Considerations of Crime," runs on  alternate Wednesdays. 

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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