As the saying goes, everything looks like a nail when you're a hammer. Police officers are rarely trained as behavioral, medical, or mental health experts. They are militarized, armed, and primed for conflict. When seeking assistance, you expect qualified professionals. Public safety is no different; any number of needs would be better met by experts in the field such as licensed social workers, mental health counselors, and substance use counselors rather than by a cop.
Instead, police serve as a catch-all despite being ill-equipped to safely and effectively serve our communities. As a result, people experiencing a mental health crisis, for example, are more likely to have contact with law enforcement than to get any support or treatment. In 2020, Chicago's Cook County Jail, the Los Angeles County Jail, and New York's Rikers Island jail complex held more people with severe mental health conditions than any dedicated treatment facility in the country. As a nation, we've prioritized incarceration over treatment.
There's a brighter, more compassionate path forward. U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a former nurse, has reintroduced the People's Response Act. The legislation takes a new approach to public safety, tackling issues like substance abuse and mental health from a public health perspective. Such practices are vital for community protection and ensuring adequate support resources.
Help demonstrate broad support for safety with dignity. Sign on as a grassroots cosponsor of the People's Response Act.
We see success when we approach public safety through a public health lens. In Portland, Oregon, an unarmed crisis response team has reportedly responded to more than 7,000 emergency calls related to behavioral health crises, keeping some of the city's most vulnerable people out of jail. Researchers found the program to "reduce police officer workloads and provide an alternative to overburdened hospital emergency departments." Despite its success, the program's future is uncertain due to unreliable funding.
Meanwhile, the city continues to increase police budgets. Minneapolis, Minnesota, has a similar crisis response team, which the U.S. Department of Justice has praised. While Portland's crisis response team is housed in the city fire department, a trusted community group administers the program in Minneapolis. Both programs' successes are rooted in trauma-informed, culturally responsive, people-centered approaches.
Public safety is a matter of public health. However, for many communities, "public safety" translates to criminalization, surveillance, and brutality. A holistic, inclusive, health-centered approach is critical to ensuring the safety of young folks, disabled people, communities of color, and low-income areas.
The People's Response Act offers an alternative path, providing an inclusive, holistic, health-centered approach to public safety that would:
Institute a new public safety division within the Department of Health and Human Services focused on non-carceral and health-centered approaches to public safety.
Develop a federal first responders unit to support localities and states with emergency health crises.
Provide $7.5 billion in grant funding to improve crisis response.
Set up a $2.5 billion First Responder Hiring Grant creating thousands of jobs for emergency first responders—including licensed social workers, mental health counselors, substance use counselors, and peer support specialists.
"We must move beyond punishment and invest more in health, education, housing, and the other things that people truly need to thrive," said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois in a statement. "Our legislation will help devote necessary resources to address rising levels of mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness. What type of message are we sending by criminalizing and incarcerating those who simply need care?"
Po Murray, chairwoman of Newtown Action Alliance, added, "Over one million Americans have been shot since the Sandy Hook tragedy. Gun violence is a devastating public health crisis and the People's Response Act will help to save lives and support gun violence survivors no matter the zip code or the color of our skin."
Far too often, our misguided approach to public safety has had devastating and deadly effects, particularly for young people, persons with disabilities, and communities of color. People with untreated mental health disorders are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than people without mental health disorders who are approached or stopped by law enforcement. Every community deserves to feel safe, and the traditional response system fails to deliver the adequate, health-based response our communities need during a crisis.
We cannot afford to protect the status quo. It's time to invest in real solutions that will support local needs, improve crisis response, and make our communities safer and healthier for everyone.
Help demonstrate broad support for non-carceral, health- and community-based approaches to public safety by urging Congress to pass the People's Response Act.