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Rochester’s horror must never repeat

By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

Rochester police pepper-sprayed and handcuffed a 9-year-old Black girl last month, and footage released yesterday shows the incident was even worse than it first appeared. It was yet another incident that demands we reimagine and transform public safety. And that when we do so, we do not make changes around the edges as many so-called reformers would have it.

Police can’t be “trained” to handle mental health crises because their entire philosophy of community safety revolves around treating everyone like a potential criminal. That’s why we need to keep them out of these kinds of scenarios where a very different credo is needed.

Police arrived at the girl’s Rochester home last week to investigate a family disturbance call. When the girl ran off, a police officer chased her down. Body-camera footage shows officers pushed the child into the snow to handcuff her, put her in the back of a police car, and pepper-sprayed her after they said she wouldn’t put her feet in the car.

The girl is obviously distraught throughout the encounter, repeatedly pleading with the officers, “I want my dad!” At one point, an officer tells the girl, “You’re acting like a child.” The girl responds, “I am a child.”

No child should ever be assaulted or abused by law enforcement, and there is no justification for the Rochester police to pepper spray a 9-year-old. Yet this incident is not simply about the actions of a few police officers or even an entire department. It reveals a deeper problem.

Throughout the video, the police treat the girl as a non-compliant criminal, rather than a child in distress. This is just one example of why police should not be the first responders in a mental health crisis that calls for mental health expertise, compassion and understanding.

Beyond that, this incident illustrates that it’s time for us to fundamentally change how we think about community safety. Over the years, we have come to rely on police officers in a growing number of situations for which they are not equipped to handle, often resulting in police escalating rather than defusing a problem.

Whether it’s homelessness, school discipline or our crumbling mental health-care system, police have been increasingly enlisted to step into crisis situations. At the same time, we’ve shoveled billions of dollars into police departments while depriving our communities of the resources they need to thrive.

When it comes to mental health emergencies in particular, police have repeatedly proven that their treat-everyone-as-a-criminal mentality escalates situations and puts people in danger — as the Rochester Police Department showed last month and in the tragic death of Daniel Prude last year. We need to remove police from these types of situations and put trained mental health professionals in charge.

Instead of leaning on law enforcement, cities and towns across the state should create clinically staffed call hubs as alternatives to 911, where operators can connect callers to the appropriate services 24 hours a day. Local governments should also train 911 dispatchers to identify calls of people in behavioral health crises so they can re-route those calls to the crisis center.

Local governments should also have trained mobile teams available at all times to provide immediate responses to people in crisis. Rochester has such a team, but it was not deployed. These professionals can meet people where they are, work to help them feel immediate relief, and connect them to the care they need. These mobile teams should respond without law enforcement, unless the team determines police are needed in specific situations.

The final piece of this mental health model requires local governments to establish at least one crisis reception and stabilization center. The center should have a no-rejection policy and it should be staffed by clinicians and other mental health professionals who can address the immediate behavioral health needs of a person in distress.

There is clear evidence that this type of program can dramatically reduce law enforcement’s role in dealing with mental health emergencies while still meeting the needs of the community.

The Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program started in Eugene, Ore. over 30 years ago. In 2019, CAHOOTS handled more than 24,000 calls — about 17% of the calls dispatched by 911. CAHOOTS teams called for police backup just 150 times, or less than 1% of the time.

Advocates in New York City are attempting to secure funding to operate a pilot project similar to the CAHOOTS program in two NYPD precincts in Manhattan and Brooklyn with high volumes of calls about people in crisis.

This effort joins others across the country to set up civilian first-responder programs.

These initiatives offer a specific path away from police interventions in mental health emergencies. There are other solutions for keeping police out of schools, homeless services, substance use issues and other areas that should almost never require law enforcement to intervene.

If we don’t shift funds and energy from police departments to mental health professionals, school counselors and social workers, we should not be surprised when we see more incidents like what happened in Rochester, where the wrong people for the job make the situation worse, with potentially lethal consequences.

This piece was originally published in the New York Daily News.

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