A small Michigan town wants to put mental health first

The way law enforcement treats mental health issues in the U.S. is a pervasive and often dangerous issue. Ann Arbor, Michigan is trying a new approach, your Friday long read from POLITICO

We go to POLITICO for this week’s long read by Lynette Clemetson. Read the whole story, “How a Liberal Michigan Town Is Putting Mental Illness at the Center of Police Reform.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time.

Police are often first responders to mental health crises with devastating results for struggling individuals  

“Anthony is currently on his 23rd stay in the county jail. Diagnosed as a child with a host of mental illnesses—anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other learning issues—Anthony’s adult run-ins with police have followed the highs and lows of his ongoing struggles with mental illness. His record is a series of escalating charges, disturbing the peace, petty theft, traffic violations, misdemeanor assault. His most recent charge is for manufacturing and delivering heroin and cocaine, a felony that could send him to prison for the first time, for as many as 20 years.”

“In the volatile aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, much of the attention and political heat has focused on so-called “defund the police” initiatives—drastic proposed cuts to department payrolls to prevent violent and potentially deadly encounters between police and people of color. But within that debate there is another reform movement that aims to disentangle people with mental illness from the criminal legal system by replacing or supplementing police response with community clinicians trained to recognize and respond to mental health crises.

Underscored

In Washtenaw County, one of the most liberal counties in Michigan and home to the state’s flagship university, officials have struggled to balance the urge for dramatic reform and achievable, long-term solutions. In the spring, after heated public meetings and thousands of letters and emails demanding dramatic cuts to police spending, the city council in Ann Arbor, the county seat, voted to back a program for unarmed response to certain 911 calls in coordination with non-police professionals. Supporters contend that non-dangerous disturbances involving behavioral health crises—like the one that prompted Anthony’s spiral—should be diverted from police whenever possible. But the proposed program is still in the exploratory phase; specific recommendations about structure, training and funding are expected by the end of the year.

“Right now, we’re asking police to do a whole bunch of things that they’re not well equipped to do,” says Michigan State Senator Jeff Irwin, a Democrat whose district includes Washtenaw County. He introduced a bill this spring requiring the state to develop requirements for training police in de-escalation, implicit bias and behavioral health. ‘When they try to solve those problems that they shouldn’t be solving, a lot of times they make the problem worse,” Irwin says.

Bottom Line

“He’s a tall, Black young man with mental illness, and instead of seeing him as a kid who is struggling, people feel afraid of him,’ [Cynthia Harrison, Anthony’s mother] says. ‘And once he became a Black man with a record, it justified people’s feelings.”

Nationwide, people with behavioral and mental health challenges and cognitive disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal legal system. People with mental illness are booked into U.S. jails 2 million times each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Studies indicate more than a third of the total incarcerated population nationally has mental health issues. And, as is true nationally, people like Anthony with mental health issues tend to have longer jail stays and higher rates of recidivism.

“He wouldn’t be a felon if the system were addressing his mental health issues appropriately,” says Cynthia [Anthony’s mother].

Read the whole article here.


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