Guest Editorials, Opinion

Mental health crises require social workers as first responders

Police reform remains top of mind for many in the U.S., and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is proposing a commonsense way forward.

This month, he announced he would reintroduce a pair of bills aimed at averting police confrontations with people who suffer with mental illness. The legislation calls for more mental health services and additional police training.

Casey’s approach is the right answer to the pervasive question: How can we improve police response within our communities and for all people? The answer is not to “defund” or displace or demonize police. Casey’s legislation would direct resources to better teach those who swear to uphold the law how to appropriately interact with people experiencing a mental health crisis. And the legislation would divert non-crime-related emergency calls to social service workers.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit, has estimated that some 25% of fatal police shootings involve someone with severe mental illness. According to a 2015 report from the center, “reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States.”

This is precisely what Casey’s bill aims to do. The Human-services Emergency Logistics Program Act, or HELP Act, would bump non-criminal emergency calls from 911 to mental health support agencies. In essence, it would connect non-criminal calls with social services rather than law enforcement officers. This is a good thing.

This approach recognizes correctly that social workers with specific skills can provide better care and help for those in crisis. And for anyone worrying that the bill will make the streets less safe, this measure comes into play only for non-criminal activity. Police still would be the primary responders to potentially violent situations.

There have been some sharp increases in violent crime around the nation. Casey recognizes that the answer to that rests not in cuts to police funding and resources. Police must be equipped with the tools they need to succeed in making our communities safe. This means more funding for training. The second bill he is introducing, the Safe Interactions Act, would establish funding to support training programs that improve interactions between law enforcement officers and people with mental health issues.

His is a prudent, reasonable approach to a pervasive problem. Large-scale reform is mired in debate, with differences of opinion generally holding fast along partisan lines. Casey has partnered with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to help give this legislation the bipartisan edge it needs to cut through the deadlock. These measures are focused, backed by research and particularly timely.

This editorial  first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.