ACLU sues DC over police response to mental health crisis citing disability rights


The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of a nonprofit in Washington, DC, alleging that the city’s reliance on the police force for mental health emergencies violates the federal Disability Act.

According to the legal actionWashington Police Department regularly dispatches armed officers to respond to calls related to mental health crises, rather than dispatching mental health professionals trained to handle these emergencies.

The lawsuit alleges that the practice violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act because it “denies people with mental disabilities the benefits of the district’s emergency programs and services and does not provide them with equal access to those services.” .” .”

The lawsuit alleges that despite an equal opportunity commitment, people with mental disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises do not receive the same resources as people experiencing physical health crises under the ADA. According to the lawsuit, only 44 community response team personnel were hired to deal with mental health emergencies, compared to 1,600 EMTs hired to deal with physical emergencies.

The Metropolitan Police Department and Department of Behavioral Health did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Nonprofit organization says it will pay for it

In June 2021, Washington launched one Mental Health Emergency Program working with the Office of Unified Communications and the Department of Behavioral Health to redirect emergency calls to mental health specialists. Under the program, community response teams made up of mental health clinicians and certified peer support specialists would be deployed to deal with mental health emergencies in place of police officers.

“This initiative strengthens the clinical response to all crisis calls for mental health care, including those that come directly [Department of Behavioral Health]as well as those through the 911 system to provide people with the best and most appropriate treatment and support they need,” said Barbara J. Bazron, director of the Department of Behavioral Health, in one opinion in 2021.

However, according to the lawsuit, the city failed to provide sufficient funding, training and coordination to support and staff community response teams, resulting in less than 1% of the 911 mental health emergency calls being answered by mental health professionals .

“DC’s emergency response system is not only illogical and dangerous, but it also does not provide the same level of care for people with mental health crises as it does for people with physical health crises,” said Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU Disability Rights Program. said in a statement. “This is exactly the kind of unequal treatment that our disability rights laws are designed to protect against.”

“The most effective response to a mental health crisis is to offer empathy, support, and a calm, safe environment.”

– Tracy Knight, Bread for the City

This isn’t the first time the ACLU has called for improvements in Washington’s response to mental health crises. After requests for additional resources in April, the Department of Behavioral Health said its staff would soon be working at the 911 call center. Also the department said NBC Washington that it would continue to train police officers on how to deal with mental health crises.

Plaintiff in the new lawsuit is Bread for the City, a nonprofit organization focused on providing food, healthcare, legal aid and social services to underserved Washington communities. The law firm of Sheppard Mullin is representing the plaintiff along with the national ACLU and the DC ACLU

“The most effective response to a mental health crisis is to provide empathy, support and a calm, safe environment,” Tracy Knight, director of Bread for the City, said in a statement. “Although the district employs some mental health providers to respond to crises, it has not invested the necessary resources or provided them with the support needed to be deployed effectively and broadly.”

According to the lawsuit, customers at Bread for the City’s facilities often suffer from mental health crises. To avoid calling 911, the nonprofit relies on employees to defuse the crisis, which has resulted in lost revenue as funds for training and resources have been diverted from the nonprofit’s mission.

“If calling 911 resulted in mental health professionals responding promptly to a mental health crisis, Bread would be able to redirect significant resources back to its core programs,” the lawsuit states.

The urge to deviate from the police response to mental health crises

have experts recommended that the police are not the standard response to mental health crises as they are more likely that the problem will get worse than to alleviate it.

studies discover that nationally, police are 11.6 times more likely to use violence against people with severe mental disabilities than other people, and 16 times more likely Killing people with untreated mental disabilities than other people.

“There are those who don’t call for crisis care because they’re afraid of what might happen if the police show up,” said Alex Rifwald, a member of an alternative response team in Tennessee. said Knox News in May. “We really need a response that is not tied to police officers because it has shown that the presence of a police officer can escalate someone in a crisis.”

For years, advocates have urged communities to create alternatives, such as Crisis Response Teamsto manage mental health crises rather than relying heavily on law enforcement

“We need to build community resources that can respond to and manage a crisis without law enforcement involvement. “If we build the crisis response system, that is, outside of law enforcement, we will get more people to connect with each other before the danger reaches that level,” said Ron Bruno, executive director of Crisis Intervention Team International, a group that advocates for improving response to mental health crises, told NPR in 2020.

According to the new lawsuit, Washington officials are taught to always be ready to defend themselves against attack and adopt a tactical mindset, but are not taught to adopt “a clear, open, and non-threatening stance” when interacting with anyone who is experiencing a mental crisis.

A 2021 Report of the DC Health Matter Collaborativea coalition of local healthcare providers, says law enforcement officers complete a training course that provides only a cursory understanding of best mental health management practices.

“The police are not the right person to respond to someone who is in a mental health crisis and we should stop expecting that of them,” said Ashika Verriest, a senior counsel with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, in an explanation. “For reasons of safety and equality, DC and communities across the country must invest in robust and appropriate crisis response so that all of our neighbors receive the appropriate care they need.”

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