System Failure

Across our country, police officers routinely serve as first responders to mental health crises. Every day, officers successfully resolve those matters through verbal de-escalation techniques and by facilitating additional mental health resources for our community members. These encounters end peacefully because of the dedication and professionalism of our officers, who employ enhanced training specific to assisting those in mental health crises.

Unfortunately, training and reliance on officers to provide mental health services do not resolve the underlying, systemic failure of our mental health system. Our community members are not receiving the mental health care, attention, and treatment they need and deserve. While the vast majority of people with mental health issues are not violent, “untreated mental illness” as President Obama once remarked, “can lead to larger tragedies.”

More and more across our country, police officers find themselves in the untenable position of dealing with persons with untreated mental illness who turn violent. Even with the array of de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques and less lethal tools available to officers, some of these interactions result in unavoidable tragedy. Guns and knives are no less dangerous because they are wielded by an individual in a mental health crisis.

Calls for service where officers believe they are responding to take a routine report can quickly escalate to the point of an officer having to make a split-second decision to protect lives in the face of an armed community member suffering from mental illness. A tragic example of this and the failure of the mental health system nationwide is the incident in Seattle involving Charleena Lyles. No matter how hard an officer tries to de-escalate, no matter how many other force options an officer may have available, an officer may have no other choice but to protect life by using deadly force.

It is tragic when our society leaves mental illness untreated. And it is tragic that this burden has been placed primarily on the shoulders of our officers. The mental health system is failing across the country, our citizens with mental illness deserve more services and support. The mental health system must be addressed with the same seriousness and intention as our officers’ response.

Daryl Turner, President