Why are police our first responders to the mental health crisis?


Photo by Jonah Newman

A University of Chicago police officer stands watch outside the Booth School of Business on April 5, 2018, as students and community members rally in response to the shooting of a student by a UCPD officer that occurred two days earlier.

A reader responds to our April 6 story, “U. of C. police shooting came at time of increased stops, continued disparities.” 

Are the police truly “inadequate and inappropriate” first responders? Many calls to 911 are for issues with the mentally ill. Officers do the best that they can with the situation they are presented with. Not every single encounter is going to go well. No one is more concerned with the mental health crisis than the officers on the street who deal with it on a daily basis.

So what did I see on that video? The suspect was clearly a danger to himself and others. Does someone in that state of mind suddenly become “OK” and stop their actions?  No. They need to be detained and evaluated.

READ THE STORY:U. of C. police shooting came at time of increased stops, continued disparities

The suspect in this situation did not stop once he saw the officer. If the officer deployed a taser and the barbs did not make contact with the suspect’s skin, there wouldn’t be enough time for the officer to move out of the way of the suspect’s swinging metal stake.  With one swing that officer could be incapacitated and the suspect would have access to his service weapon.

In this case the officer complied with use of force guidelines: He gave the suspect several verbal commands which the suspect did not obey; he disengaged from the suspect, but the suspect followed. The suspect had a deadly weapon in his hand and he had target acquisition. Deadly force was justified. That does not mean the officer wanted to shoot the suspect who was clearly not in his right mind.  That does not mean the officer doesn’t wish there was another option.  And that does not mean that the officer is ok with what the suspect forced him to do.

Twenty years ago, there were quadruple the number of facilities to house the mentally ill.  As those facilities closed, more mentally ill found themselves living on the street. The lucky ones moved in with family members. But most families are not equipped to care for their mentally ill loved ones.

This is not strictly a police problem. Nor is it only a mental health problem. It’s society’s problem. Society needs to come together to work on a solution. This situation is no one’s fault and everyone’s responsibility.