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Rebecca Farley

Director, Policy & Advocacy, National Council for Behavioral Health

Senate Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Law Enforcement Responses to Individuals in Crisis

May 1, 2014 | Justice | Comments
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On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a hearing to explore challenges and solutions in law enforcement officers’ responses to individuals with mental illness or disabilities who are in crisis.

The hearing, entitled “Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety,” was hosted by Subcommittee Chair Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Durbin and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the Subcommittee’s Ranking Member, noted that because of inadequate social and mental health services, law enforcement officers have increasingly become the first responders for individuals with mental illness or developmental disabilities who are in crisis.

Panelists at the hearing included law enforcement officers, a state judge, and two parents of children who had suffered tragic, potentially avoidable experiences with the law. All agreed on the need for law enforcement officers to receive additional training, such as Crisis Intervention Training, to safely address these situations. Localities that use these approaches have seen fewer injuries and deaths among officers and people with mental illness or developmental disabilities, increased jail diversion rates, fewer lawsuits following crisis incidents, and stronger ties with the mental health and disability communities.

Panelists and lawmakers offered their thoughts on how Congress and the Executive Branch can support and strengthen these efforts. Among the solutions discussed at the hearing were:

  • Passing the bipartisan Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act (S. 162), introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) with 33 cosponsors. This legislation reauthorizes the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act and authorizes grants for training law enforcement officers to identify and respond to incidents involving people with mental illness or substance abuse disorders.
  • Data collection by the Justice Department on law enforcement’s interactions with individuals with mental illnesses or disabilities, particularly where the use of force is involved.
  • The Justice Department issuing best practices on law enforcement interactions with disabled Americans, which could serve as a model for state and local law enforcement.
  • The Justice Department taking steps to notify and educate state and local law enforcement about their legal obligations to disabled Americans. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement agencies to make reasonable modifications – including training officers – to ensure that Americans with disabilities are not subject to discriminatory treatment. Earlier this month, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division found that a local police department was required to implement certain remedial measures to ensure that the Constitutional rights of Americans with disabilities are protected, including requiring all officers to participate in crisis intervention training.

The National Council submitted a statement for the record, urging lawmakers to invest in community treatment by expanding the Excellence in Mental Health Act demonstration program and improve first responders’ understanding of mental illness by supporting Mental Health First Aid. Click here to read more.

Witnesses at the hearing included: The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance Director, The Honorable Denise E. O’Donnell; Chicago Police Department First Deputy Superintendent, Alfonza Wysinger; Plano Police Department Sergeant, A.D. Paul; Fourth Judicial District of Minnesota Judge, The Honorable Jay M. Quam; Mental Health Advocate and Best Selling Author, Pete Earley – who will also be speaking at next week’s National Council Conference; and the National Down Syndrome Society’s Advocate of the Year and mother of Ethan Saylor, Patti Saylor.

Video of the hearing and witness testimony can be found here.