Senators spar over dispatching mental health experts to police calls


Democrats on a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Thursday championed dispatching mental health experts instead of police to some emergency calls to reduce fatal police encounters, but Republicans said having unarmed civilians respond to emergencies puts the public at greater risk.

The hearing before the Judiciary subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism comes as the upper chamber weighs multiple proposals aimed at increasing the use of mental health experts as first responders to people in crisis.

One proposal, introduced last year by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, would create a $100 million federal grant program to bolster local agencies that look to alternatives to a law enforcement response. The bill would establish a fund running through fiscal 2025, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, that would dole out grants to last five years.

A bipartisan measure by Sens. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, and Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, would boost the use of mental health courts throughout the country. However, that proposal is in its infancy and has yet to be introduced.

Democrats and some witnesses said mental health experts would be a better alternative to respond to people struggling with homelessness, addiction and mental-health issues. Their training in de-escalation tactics and behavioral counseling could prevent a situation from turning fatal, they argued.

“Officers are deeply frustrated and overwhelmed because they are expected to play the role of social worker, mental health expert and medical expert when they do not have the training or skills often to do so,” said Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat. “These encounters can quickly escalate to violence or turn deadly.”

Mr. Booker cited a 2015 study concluding that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely to die during a police encounter.

“Public health issues cannot be fixed with a law enforcement response,” he continued. “We must find a different way.”

Kevin Martone, former Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, told lawmakers using armed police to respond to a person in crisis unnecessarily escalates the situation.

“Unnecessarily dispatching armed officers to a call where their presence is unnecessary is more than just an ineffective use of safety resources. It can also create substantially adverse outcomes for communities of color, individuals with behavioral health disorders and disabilities,” he said in testimony.

Republicans and law enforcement witnesses seized on the rising crime rates in cities across the country. Deploying unarmed civilians with no law enforcement training to potentially dangerous situations creates a greater risk to bystanders.

Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, noted that many violent criminals also suffer from mental health issues, which blurs the line between deciding to dispatch law enforcement or mental health professionals.

Terri O’Connor, the widow of Philadelphia Police Sgt. James O’Connor, who was fatally shot while serving a murder warrant in March 2020, testified to the committee that the idea of sending mental health workers to emergency calls was “absurd.”

Ms. O’Connor emotionally detailed her husband’s death, noting his killer had committed four previous murders and was holed up in an apartment with guns and drugs.

“Who do you think should be responsible for going into the room and responding to incidents involving hardened criminals like this? Mental health workers? This is the job my husband and his coworkers signed up for. These are split-second decisions that need to be made,” she said.

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