Separating police, mental health response isn’t easy

Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on June 9, 2020

When I read in the Star Tribune (June 8) that some city council members are calling for dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department, suggesting instead sending mental health professionals to respond to certain emergencies, I thought of my son’s first mental health crisis. His psychologist had recommended calling the police. “The police,” I remember shrieking. “Why not you or some other medical person?” He assured me that this was the fastest way to get Jim into the mental health system. It seemed crazy to me, but I soon found that the entire mental health system overlaps with the judiciary system—from police crisis calls to sheriff transports to civil commitment courts to jails and prisons being “providers” of last resort.

Our family has dealt with more mental health providers than I care to count over the past twenty years. Their after-hours answering machines— when mental health crises tend to occur—all routinely say, “If this is an emergency, hang up (your phone) and dial 911.” That means the police. They are equipped to come the fastest and are trained to deal with violence. When I have called county crisis teams, they sometimes advise calling the police. In our experience, it’s a rarer mental health professional than we have ever found who dares to show up at such times without police backup.

Being the mother of a son with a serious mental illness gives me a very small glimpse into the quandary African-American families face all the time when dealing with police. In a front-page June 5 Star Tribune article, a mental health worker said what happened to George Floyd made her think of her clients, who are also at risk because of a lack of understanding between law enforcement and marginalized people. During one crisis with our son that went beyond my coping ability, I called 911. As always, my heart was in my throat. At the time, there had been several examples of people in mental health crisis who had been killed by the police. I weighed the odds carefully. A compassionate officer picked me up so I could move my car, that Jim had been driving, off a busy street. When I arrived on the scene, three or four officers had Jim on the ground, kneeling over him. I asked if he had been shot and started towards them. The officer in charge yelled at me to get back and kept on berating me, as if this were a crime scene instead of a medical emergency. The other officers looked at me with sympathy but didn’t intervene. When an ambulance arrived, we were back in medical mode, but I never forgot how being yelled at as if I were an accomplish to a crime had made me feel.

I thought of Jim pressed into the ground by those officers when I saw the videos of George Floyd. No ambulance came for him until he was dead.

The mental health worker quoted in the Star Tribune didn’t call for dismantling the police department, however. She talked about better-educated, better-trained police. In 2016, I cochaired a local Roseville Area League of Women Voters study about the police in our five cities. We made similar recommendations, calling for better training. We concluded, as I’m sure the mental health worker knows and our family knows, that, like it or not, police are often needed when psychosis and substance abuse crises are involved.