Washington police discriminate by sending police to mental health calls, lawsuit claims

One-fifth of police calls involve mental health issues, studies estimate

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 07 July 2023 20:09 BST
Police mental health bill questioned

Washington DC is violating a landmark federal disability rights law by sending armed police officers to respond to mental health crises, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court by the ACLU of Washington on Thursday.

The lawsuit accuses the city of going against the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to send qualified mental health professionals to such cases, and by underfunding a programme to divert certain 911 calls to mental health experts and peer support specialists.

“Someone who calls 911 for a physical health emergency gets trained medical providers who can treat and stabilize them. But someone who calls 911 for a mental health emergency gets a police officer with handcuffs and a gun,” Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, said in a statement. “More than just illogical and dangerous, D.C.’s emergency response system fails to provide the same level of care for people in mental health crises as for people in physical health crises. This is precisely the type of unequal treatment our disability rights laws are designed to protect against.”

A Washington DC police car
A Washington DC police car (Getty Images)

The Independent has contacted the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for comment.

The lawsuit, on behalf of Bread for the City, a nonprofit that serves low-income and unhoused people, alleges that Washington officials only sent the city’s mental health Community Response Team (CRT) in about one per cent of mental health emergencies, whereas EMTs and paramedics were sent to respond to 90 per cent physical health emergencies.

The suit also alleges that the city has underfunded the CRT programme, introduced in 2021, to the point where calls to it are rarely answered.

Officers in the MPD receive far less training on handling mental health than EMTs do on responding to physical health crises, the suit alleges.

Last year, DC city councilmember Janeese Lewis George testified about a constituent who called the CRT programme, only to have both CRT and MPD personnel arrive on scene, where the police later shot the individual in crisis, The Appeal reports.

The Minneapolis Police Department discriminated against people with behavioural disabilities by sending armed police officers, the Department of Justice found after it investigated the force.

According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 20 per cent of all calls to law enforcement involve mental health. A similar proportion of police shootings involve mental health crises, according to a Washington Post database.

Following the 2020 racial justice uprisings, many US cities began experimenting with mental health first responder programmes.

Cities like Eugene, Oregon, which has had such a programme for three decades, pioneered the model.

Eugene’s CAHOOTS programme, which pairs a crisis worker with a medic to respond to mental health calls, receives an estimated 17,700 calls a year, about 17 per cent of the overall 911 calls, saving the city an estimated $22.5m in public safety and emergency medical costs.

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