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Stop Dumping the Mental-Health Crises on Cops

Public Safety, Health Policing, Crime Control, Serious Mental Illness

On Thursday, the NYPD released bodycam footage of the Sept. 6 shooting death of Miguel Richards, an emotionally disturbed Bronx resident. As the first such incident recorded since officers began wearing bodycams, this tragedy has given civil-liberties advocates an opportunity to make more claims about cops’ allegedly excessive use of lethal force.

In truth, Richards’ death raises more questions about mental-illness policy than police work.

“We shouldn’t make cops responsible for the failures of our mental-health-care system.”

The NYPD has, in fact, been training officers to deal with these types of situations. But our expectations for the Crisis Intervention Team approach should be tempered by an acceptance of the fact that we shouldn’t make cops responsible for the failures of our mental-health-care system.

The NYPD launched its CIT program in 2015, and 5,600 cops have by now received the training. CIT teaches techniques patterned on those used in hostage negotiations.

Throughout the four-day course, cops learn about the history of mental illness in America and its varieties, symptoms and prospects for treatment, and they participate in scenarios with actors playing people in states of acute psychiatric crisis.

CIT has broad support. The 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama and developed in large measure by congressional Republicans, revised federal grant programs to allow funding for state and local CIT efforts. New York’s recently enacted budget increased funding for CIT.

In his classic study “Varieties of Police Behavior,” James Q. Wilson wrote: “The patrolman’s role is defined more by his responsibility for maintaining order than by his responsibility for enforcing the law” [emphasis from the original text]. For police, maintaining order in the streets has never been easy, and it has become tougher for two reasons.

First, tensions between police and the communities they patrol have deteriorated since the rise of Black Lives Matter. Attacks on cops are up. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 64 police officers were shot and killed in 2016, compared with 41 in 2015.

Second, the US mental health-care system has become increasingly fragmented. Instead of caring for the mentally ill almost exclusively in psychiatric hospitals, as was generally done until the 1960s, governments at all levels now try to connect them with care in communities. This has proved easier said than done.

A striking indicator that “deinstitutionalization” has not lived up to its promise: the high rates of mental illness among our incarcerated population. Despite numbering less than one in 20 of the adult population, the seriously mentally ill constitute one in five jail and prison inmates.

“Last year, the NYPD responded to “emotionally disturbed person” calls at a rate of more than 400 per day.”

Before the mentally ill wind up behind bars, their first point of contact with the criminal-justice system is with patrol officers. Last year, the NYPD responded to “emotionally disturbed person” calls at a rate of more than 400 per day.

Many calls for service concerning the mentally ill don’t involve any serious criminal activity. But even when a crime hasn’t occurred, the public — or whoever called 911 — expects the responding officers to address the immediate crisis.

CIT is thus a reasonable response to the reality that the mentally ill will likely remain heavily involved with the criminal-justice system for the time being.

Some form of CIT is in use in places where approximately half the US population lives, though the quality and nature of these programs varies. No definitive study of New York’s CIT initiative has been conducted yet.

For any department, it is difficult to quantify CIT’s success, because, as Sam Cochran, the leading expert on the training explains, “How do you prove [that] something doesn’t happen?”

Police shootings are rare events. CIT proponents cite studies that show how programs in other cities have reduced the “criminalization of mental illness” by lowering the number of “bookings” resulting from mental-health-crisis calls.

Still, patrol officers’ principal responsibility remains to maintain order — not to cure people with schizophrenia. That hundreds of these encounters are negotiated each day without resulting in a tabloid-worthy tragedy says a great deal about how effectively, even without CIT, the average NYPD patrol officer copes with mental-health crises.

CIT is a worthy program, but it can’t take the place of proper treatment. Its popularity shouldn’t divert resources or attention from genuine mental-health-care reform. A truly humane and effective mental-health-care system would have no need for something like CIT in the first place.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Carolyn Gorman is the project manager for education policy and mental-illness policy at the Manhattan Institute. This piece was adapted from City Journal

This piece originally appeared in New York Post