The police shooting of a Paterson man who was a member of a local anti-violence group has renewed calls for less police involvement in situations involving people exhibiting signs of mental illness.
New Jersey has made strides in this area, announcing in February that a pilot program pairing police officers with mental health experts would expand to almost every county in the next year. But policymakers must do more to protect the lives of the people they serve, reformers say.
Nancy Wolff is a professor at Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy who has researched behavioral health services and criminal justice.
“There has been a loss of a man’s life because he was in a mental health crisis, and there was a mismanagement of the situation. It’s not the first time this has happened and it’s not likely to be the last time, which suggests not enough is being done,” Wolff said.
Wolff said the question here is whether communities are willing to invest in the types of specialized interventions that can prevent overreactions when police respond to mental health crises.
She said there are two types of intervention approaches. One she calls a “go it alone” approach, where officers are given mental health training to enhance their understanding of mental health issues and allow them to understand symptoms, triggers, how mental health manifests, and how to de-escalate situations. The other is a call-response intervention, where police officers partner with mental health experts to respond together as a team.
It’s more common to do the “go it alone” response, but there’s strong evidence showing they both work, with New York City, Seattle, and Chicago all using crisis response teams.
“The right thing could have been done. We certainly have the technologies for doing it, we have the skill set for doing it, and we have models that show they work. It’s a matter of setting this as a priority to respond effectively and humanely to the needs of people with mental health problems,” she said.
The state announced last month it will expand a state program that pairs plainclothes police officers with mental health screeners to 10 counties. It launched in Cumberland County, where officials said it completely eliminated the use of force when responding to mental health calls, and it expanded to parts of Union County last year. Passaic County is not included in the next expansion.