CLEVELAND, Ohio — Some in Northeast Ohio are calling for an overhaul of the way mental health and behavioral health crises are handled. They believe mental health experts, not police officers, should be responding to some calls for service.
“When it comes to the mental health crisis, unhoused individuals, even neuro divergent individuals as well as people who may be experiencing addiction addiction crisis, these are all health issues,” said Bree Easterling. “It's more pertinent and beneficial for people who are subject matter experts in that field to respond to the crisis, rather than the police.
Easterling, who was recently appointed as the public safety fellow at Policy Matters Ohio, explained the model is called “care response.” It uses medical providers, social workers and peer support specialists in place of law enforcement.
They said armed police officers responding to crisis calls can result in unnecessary arrests or escalate stressful situations, particularly among minorities.
“With dealing with and interacting with marginalized communities, black and brown communities, it could become extremely disastrous and dangerous, in terms of police interaction,” they said.
In 2014, Tanisha Anderson died in police custody after her family reported she was having a mental health breakdown. The 37-year-old lived with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Her family told News 5 at the time that they hoped their 911 call would bring Anderson to the hospital.
Instead, they said the interaction ended with her handcuffed and pinned to the ground by officers. Anderson died from the injuries she suffered while being detained.
After her death, Anderson’s family called for improvements to the way police handle mental health crises. Their advocacy encouraged the Cleveland Division of Police to institute a more fully defined crisis intervention training program for its officers.
Now, other advocates say more should be done to separate criminal calls from service calls for mental and behavioral health issues.
“It offers comfort to both the family, as well as to the individual experiencing that crisis, that it's not a legal issue,” said Scott Osiecki, the CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County.
Osiecki explained the ADAMHS Board has been working with local leaders and organizations to develop crisis response teams to offer a “health first” or non-police response to crisis situations.
“It’s not only good for the person, it’s good for the community, it’s good for the police,” he said. “It reduces low-level arrests, it deescalates situations and then it can actually connect a person right to treatment.”
In recent years, Cuyahoga County opened several behavioral health urgent care centers and a short-term Diversion Center law enforcement can bring people suffering from mental health or addiction. In July, a 988 crisis line went live nationwide.
Osiecki said the growing awareness of mental illness and addiction disorders, combined with the availability of the new services make now an ideal time to pursue a care response program in Cuyahoga County.
“It just becomes another tool in our crisis continuum that we have here in Cuyahoga County,” he said.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb says the mental health crisis is a priority for his administration and for him personally.
“Investing in preventative ways to tackle violent crime and to stop crime before it starts… I think mental health will be a key part of those investments,” he said. “This is personal for me, not just as mayor of Cleveland but as a resident of the city.”
He explained his cousin was killed several years ago by a partner experiencing a mental health crisis.
“I think about what would have happened if when he called 911 someone would have gotten there with a better mental health response. My cousin’s life probably could have been saved,” he said.
The Bibb administration supports a coresponder model, which would involve mental health professionals responding with police officers in crisis situations. The mayor said he hopes to leverage funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) to expand the program to all of the city’s precincts. He also wants to add a fourth mental health option for 911 callers, which he said would help alleviate conflict and an understaffed division of police.
“This is about having the right response for the right call and also targeting resources to actually focus on violent crime, particularly as we’re struggling to onboard more officers inside our department,” Bibb said.
He explained the efforts to build out the program are already underway.
Next week, Policy Matters Ohio plans to release a detailed report with recommendations about implementing a care response approach in Northeast Ohio.
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