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Growth of Civilian Crisis Response Teams Fails to Settle Debate

Dolores M. Harvey/ Shutterstock

When the family of a Jersey City, N.J., man grew concerned last weekend that he wasn't taking his medication for his bipolar disorder and "wasn't acting normal," in the words of his aunt, they called the city's crisis center. “Paramedics came," the aunt, Lisa Mendez, told CBS. "Instead of calling the crisis center, they called the SWAT team. We said, ‘Why? Please, don’t hurt him,’ and we know it’s a mental condition, he’s having a mental crisis."

It wasn't the first time Andrew Jerome Washington had an encounter with police. In 2011, the city's mobile crisis team responded to a call about his behavior but called the police out of fear for their safety, CNN reported. Police ended up shooting Washington in that incident. He survived. But, on Sunday, police fatally shot Washington after they said he charged at them with a knife when, after nearly an hour of conversation through a closed door, officers entered his home. The state's attorney general's office is investigating.

Washington's shooting is only the latest flash point in a ongoing debate over the proper response to mental health crises, whether with hybrid police-civilian teams, civilian-only teams, or specially trained police.

Fueled by the 2020 murder of George Floyd and other fatal encounters with police, at least 14 of the 20 most populous U.S. cities are hosting or starting programs that respond with civilian teams, the Associated Press reports.

They span from New York and Los Angeles to Columbus, Ohio, and Houston, and boast annual budgets that together topped $123 million as of June, The AP found. Funding sources vary.

“If someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, law enforcement is not what they need,” said Tamara Lynn of the National De-Escalation Training Center, a private group that trains police to handle such situations.

In Denver, a program called STAR answered 5,700 calls last year and is often cited as a national model. Its funding has totaled $7 million since 2021.

In New York, a more than $40 million-a-year program dubbed B-HEARD answered about 3,500 calls last year, and mental health advocates criticize it as anemic.

Representatives from some other cities were frank about challenges — staffing shortages, acclimating 911 dispatchers to sending out unarmed civilians, and more — at a conference in Washington, D.C., this spring.

Still, officials in places including New York see no-police teams as an important shift in how they address people in crisis.

“We really think that every single B-HEARD response is just a better way that we, the city, are providing care to people,” said Laquisha Grant of the New York Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

Federal data is incomplete, but various studies and statistics show that mentally ill people make up a substantial proportion of those killed by police. Often, the dead are people of color.

Some observers wonder if safety worries will grow as non-police programs do. While there’s an appeal to the idea of pulling cops out of psychiatric crisis calls, “the challenge is identifying those calls,” said Stephen Eide, a senior fellow specializing in mental health issues at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank.

But families like Washington's say that the presence of police, and often their lack of training, can be the spark that causes violence in such incidents.

“Why did they bust in there like he was a criminal, like he was threatening someone? He was in his own place,” Mendez said.


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