911 call turned deadly: It’s time we invest in our community

“Shoot! Shoot in the heart,” local Miami resident Donald Armstrong screamed while waving around a screwdriver on his front porch during the peak of a mental health episode. Despite pleas from his mother not to kill her son, Armstrong was tased and shot over a dozen times. A 911 call tragically escalated into a perilous encounter with the very people tasked to help.

Our city is facing a mental health crisis. Too often, people with severe mental illness (SMI) are deemed hostile or resistant by police. According to data from The Treatment Advocacy Center, in 2015, people with SMI were sixteen times more likely to experience police use of force. The Washington Post highlights that between 2015 and 2020, nearly a quarter of all fatal police shootings involved individuals with mental illness. Add in factors such as race and implicit bias, and the chance of a fatal police interaction increases exponentially.

It is imperative that we shift our approach from police intervention to funding more specialized non-police mental health crisis teams during these emergencies to safeguard individuals and, ultimately, communities.

Our current approach to mental health crises fails those suffering from SMI. Armstrong, albeit in an extreme situation, is not the first nor the last to suffer a similar fate. Police, despite lacking sufficient training in de-escalation techniques tailored to individuals with SMI, are frequently called upon to handle mental health emergencies. However, police intervention often leads to escalation and increased harm for everyone involved. They are, after all, law enforcement and not mental health experts.

Alternative models currently exist in Miami and deserve more funding. Programs like the Circle of Brotherhood, Freedom House Mobile Clinic of The Healing and Justice Center strive to help people like Armstrong and are trained to do so. These teams are composed of local community members, mental health experts trained in de-escalation techniques, and others more equipped to deal with the delicate situations that arise. Other cities that have implemented programming like this have shown decreased violence rates and better mental health outcomes. Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, better known as CAHOOTS, is another example of an alternative to police interactions in Eugene, Oregon. These teams are tasked with assessing behavioral health crises and can even connect community members with state insurance plans and long-term care. Such programs have diverted calls from police to crisis units, reduced emergency department use, and ultimately, health care burden, which underscores the importance of funding alternative options.

Community health workers are vital to the health and wellness of our local communities. Investing in mental health crisis teams is not only morally imperative but has also shown financial benefits. Numerous studies have indicated that mobile crisis teams reduce health care utilization costs and psychiatric inpatient spending. Situations like Armstrong’s highlight the dire need for alternative crisis response models and research has shown alternative models work. Funds should be allocated to conflict mediators and community-based policing programs just as much, if not more, than they are allocated to police.

Although many people believe police involvement will enhance community safety for people experiencing crises, patterns have shown otherwise. Others argue that there is little room in our budgets for training and implementing these practices. Funding constraints can be alleviated by the use of community health workers, and these aforementioned obstacles pale in comparison to the benefits of reforming our current practices.

Miami needs to address this crisis. It should listen to its various activists and reallocate some police funding to community members willing and able to respond to mental health calls. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in crisis response, and with the backing of policymakers, community leaders, and citizens, we may be able to help our most vulnerable community members.

Ashlee Guzman is a medical student.

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