SHOULD POLICE BE THE FIRST RESPONDERS?
By Christopher Do
Octavia Court, An assisted living home developed by
Brilliant Corners, an oasis of housing for developmentally
disabled adults. Photo courtesy of Brilliant Corners.
Derek Wallace, a BCC student, was walking down Shattuck when he noticed a man lying down passed out on the corner. Wallace observed a couple of people walk past the man and ignore him as if he were not there. “I felt like I had to help that man,” Wallace later told the BCC Voice. He went to the man’s side and attempted to communicate, but he was mumbling incoherently, so Wallace dialed 911. A few minutes later the cops showed up, sirens blazing, which led the man to panic. Eventually the situation escalated into a verbal conflict. “I was worried that I had made the situation worse by calling the cops,” said Wallace. Luckily, soon thereafter the fire department came followed by the ambulance and the man was seemingly taken care of. Wallace, however, felt like the police who arrived first weren’t adequately trained to help stabilize the man.
In 2015, the City of Berkeley’s Housing and Community Services Department released that there were about 800 homeless people in Berkeley. About 20 to 25 percent of those people suffer from some form of severe mental illness according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, which leaves approximately 200 homeless people in Berkeley who may have a severe mental illness. Whenever one of these people commits an illegal or disruptive act such as yelling, loitering or even sleeping, the only number available to call is 911, which dispatches police, who may not be prepared to handle delicate situations involving mental illness.
People with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police according to a 2015 national study by the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center.
Bill Pickel thinks that police should not be the first respondents to a mental health crisis. Pickel is the Executive Director of Brilliant Corners, a non-profit which provides supportive housing for developmentally disabled people in California. In his 10 years at Brilliant Corners, Pickel has seen and heard of many abuses caused by police towards developmentally disabled people. “All you can get when you have an emergency is paramedics or police and neither of them are realistically suited towards dealing with a serious mental health issue,” he says.
Pickel used to work as the housing developer in 1999 for Christian Church Homes providing low income housing. Then he was offered a position as the executive director at Brilliant Corners, which was known as West Bay Housing in 2007. After nearly two decades of first-hand experience with developmentally disabled people, Pickel believes that “There should be annual courses which train police with mental health crisis, to focus on deescalating situations and identify when there is a serious mental health crisis. In addition, each police department should have a mental heath specialist which is able to deal with the most serious of mental health issues.”
Pickel was quick to say, “I’m sure that not every time the police are called a situation escalates or turns violent, but all too often the only time we hear about situations involving mental health crisis is when things go awry.” In fact, last October, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee announced a plan that would link together licensed mental health professionals to police officers in order to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence when it comes to mental health suspects, according to reporting by the SF Gate.
A social worker who works closely with Brilliant Corners, providing clinical case management for the chronically homeless, and who wishes to remain anonymous, told the BCC Voice that, “Police have a hard job, often times they go into a situation with little to no information. Thankfully, every time I have had to call the cops it has only been for wellness checkups not for deescalating a violent situation.”
This source believes identification and communication are key when involving the police in cases pertaining to mental health crisis. “Often when the police are called in for mental health disturbances, the person who is having the crisis is non-violent. Sometimes these people are just confused and can’t cross a street or need to talk to someone, but are unsuccessfully adapting to an unfamiliar situation. This is compounded with whatever is mentally abnormal with that person.”
So what are you going to do the next time you see someone collapsing in the street talking to themselves and feel the moral obligation to help someway? If you are in Berkeley you can call Crisis Services at (510) 981-5290.
If you must call the police, follow the anonymous social worker’s advice: make sure that you clearly state that you think the person is having a mental issue and identify whether or not they have a weapon or are violent, in order to avoid unnecessary escalation.