Are you a mental health worker or advocate?
Do you actually want to help dismantle police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S.?
Then take action, now, to mobilize people to demand a ban on police so-called “wellness checks” and police response to community health and mental health calls? Because police wellness checks kill. Black and brown people especially.
Countless Preventable Deaths
That’s right. Around the U.S. we have an obscene policy wherein if you see someone suicidal, or they have been not heard from recently, or they are yelling and in an extreme state of consciousness, you are to call the emergency phone line and the geniuses in your county government will send out the police. The police show up, sometimes with guns drawn and sometimes breaking down the door. And people who would not have died, die.
Let’s set aside for the moment all the times the police escalate violence when they show up for a “wellness check” (or “welfare check” or “safety check”) that results in injury and needless arrest. We know this happens. I’ve seen it. Someone is beaten and the police lie about what happened. Let’s just set that aside.
Let’s just talk about police killing people as a result of wellness checks.
Here are just a few examples found by searching with the terms “police death wellness welfare safety check.” Just a small fraction of the ones we know about because guess what, there is no national database on police killings or the races of those killed, no meaningful oversight or investigation, and we know the police cover up and lie about what happened all the time. Forgive me if I’ve left some people’s races off this list; news reports often don’t include that information:
- In Albuquerque, New Mexico earlier this year, Valente Acosta-Bustillos was killed after his daughter was worried about him and police came for a so-called wellness check. Valente was Latino.
- In Fort Worth, Texas in 2019, police murdered Atatiana Jefferson in her home after a neighbor called a non-emergency line concerned that her door was left open, requesting a wellness check. Atatiana was Black.
- In Minneapolis in 2019, Travis Jordan was killed by two police officers at his home after his girlfriend called 911 because he was suicidal. Travis was Black.
- In Gastonia, North Carolina in 2015, James Allen was murdered by a police officer after firefighters forced his door open during a wellness check “concerned he might need emergency assistance” because he wasn’t answering knocks to his door.
- In Birmingham, Alabama in 2015, Douglas Harris was shot by police after officers went to his apartment for a wellness check because someone “heard he had dementia.”
- In the Bronx borough of New York City in 2015, Denis Reyes needed medical attention so his mother called 911. But it was the police –in their role as “wellness” providers—who came instead, and he wound up dead. Denis was Latino.
- In Brunswick County, North Carolina in 2014, police killed 18-year-old Keith Vidal after his family called for help because he was angry with his mother. Two police arrived and were talking with Vidal. Then a third showed up, threatened Vidal with a taser, and shot him to death when he tried to run away.
- In White Plains, New York in 2011, Kenneth Chamberlain accidentally triggered his medic-alert bracelet. Police responded and he was dead after being hit by a taser, beanbag shotgun, and two handgun rounds. Kenneth was Black.
- In Portland, Oregon in 2008, Jordan Case wandered into a neighbor’s apartment and apologized, explaining he was high on psychedelic mushrooms. The neighbor called for help, but again it was the police who responded to this wellness call instead. They ran Case down and shot him in the back of the head.
Again, just a few examples from a quick search, from public media accounts—when we know there are many, many more murders we don’t hear about.
But wait, these people probably died accidentally, so why do I use the word “murder?” Because our society planned, in a pre-meditated way, to send armed officers to these situations as a matter of policy, knowing full well there would be a serious risk of police provoking and/or escalating the situation. Police and the governments that fund them know that historically, “wellness check” policies and sending the police as first responders when people call for help consistently result in some people dying who did not need to die. To call these deaths “accidental” just defies reason. These people were murdered by the systemic violence of so-called wellness /safety checks by police, and police being dispatched to respond to calls for help when they shouldn’t be sent in the first place.
Let’s be clear. The police have no role to play in responding to mental health crises. None. The idea that a person in emotional crisis needs a person in a uniform carrying a gun, club, handcuffs, taser, and pepper spray—someone who is trained to kill— to show up to “help” them is absolutely insane. Orwellian. Madness.
Police provoke fear and things quickly escalate to violence. Then they lie about it and cover it up. And we’re going to make them emotional-crisis first responders?
The police have no role to play in mental health care, period. None. They don’t need to be trained to respond to mental health calls better, they don’t need more resources to respond to mental health calls better, they don’t need more funding to respond to mental health calls better, and they don’t need better policies around mental health calls.
Police must stop responding to any mental health calls, ever.
Where We’re at Now
Now is the time to get clear about this, because now is the time we are getting clear about the police in society.
In case you have become confused about the protests against police violence around the U.S. and world after the death of George Floyd, let’s just go over what we know:
Police in Minneapolis, Minnesota who knew they were being filmed tortured George Floyd, a Black man, to death for no reason while other officers stood around watching. The police officers’ bosses did nothing. The police autopsy lied about it to make the murder seem like it wasn’t a murder. When the video was shared and the entire U.S. erupted in the most serious protests since the Civil Rights Movement era, it was the protests—and only protests, not politicians—that finally forced Minneapolis to take action against the officers.
But the anti-police brutality protests around the country were met by more police violence—also seen on video on the Internet and TV news. Police are shown again and again to inflict brutality, to provoke peaceful protests into riots, to use rubber bullets, tear gas, tasers, clubs, and physical assault without reason or justification —and then when they were caught on video, to brazenly lie about it or make flimsy excuses. People around the U.S. and world, in perhaps the most dramatically clear and undeniable way in world history, now have the shocking truth about the real nature of the police staring us in the face. This is a truth Black people have been trying to get Whites to face for decades.
It became clear immediately and obviously that the U.S. police —openly and on video —murdered George Floyd, protected his killers, lied about it, and then inflicted violence and provocation on peaceful protestors because they do this all the time. It was plain to see that for police, all this was just business as usual, because they have been doing it for many decades and getting away with it. It is normal for U.S. police to murder people, lie about it, and get away with it. What is new here is that maybe for the first time, the evidence is so undeniably obvious, and the brutality towards protestors so widespread, that people are waking up to the horrifying fact of systemic police violence and racism.
So that’s where we are at.
We remember the Ferguson protests and the promises of reforms under a Black president. Those promises of reforms did nothing, and the police—who are murdering protestors in growing numbers—know they can continue to get away with their violence even after Ferguson.
So, finally, what is happening now is that people are realizing two things:
First, we have to have protests. Not marches —which have done nothing and will do nothing. We need protests in the streets. Only plunging the country into an uprising has made any change happen in Minneapolis and elsewhere.
Second, reforms do nothing. The only way to stop police from murdering people and getting away with it is to stop the police. We need to defund police, not reform them. We need to get police off the streets, and we need alternatives to policing. Not reformed, better, less brutal police. Not going to happen. Finally, people are actually demanding a real change that will solve the problem: Defund the police.
Minneapolis and Los Angeles are already taking steps in the direction of cutting police budgets and shifting to police alternatives. Police unions that stand in the way of change—full of white supremacists and defending police violence (and working hand in hand with mental health agencies around the country—are now being challenged.
Now, at this point you may ask, But what will we do about crime without police? The answer, as many people have been discussing for decades (and Alex Vitale writes in his free e-book The End of Policing), is that we fund community-controlled prevention and response programs, we end mass incarceration, we end the war on drugs, and we end immigration detention. Near where I live, Richmond, California reduced its murder rate with such community programs, and there are many, many examples of other effective ways to do it. Defunding the police and building community responses is real, it can work, and it is available to us.
What You Must Do
Here is where the mental health organizations and advocates come in.
Now is the time for all of us to join our voices to demand change. Stop talking in vague terms. Let’s get specific. Defund the police. Because if you ask us, we should know already what works. We have the programs, we have the ideas, we have the skills, and we have the tools. We have been doing this work already – providing non-police alternatives to mental health crises. It’s called the “recovery movement,” it’s called the mad movement, it’s been the rallying cry of psychiatric survivors since Judi Chamberlin wrote On Our Own. Now is the time for us to demand that police be replaced—replaced, not added onto— with real community mental health responses.
Clearly, as people are taking to the streets, all this means that your organization needs, right now, to go on record calling for defunding the police. You need personally to go on record calling for defunding the police. Defund and replace with funding for community organizations that provide real alternatives to the police.
And we can start that process by ending so-called police wellness checks (“welfare checks,” “safety checks”).
And if you think it’s just the police, it’s not. This violence is woven into the entire mental health system wherever it relies on police. If you are a therapist or social worker, right now, go to your email auto-signature at the bottom of every email you send out, and where you wrote “If this is an emergency, call 911,” delete it. Go right now to your voicemail greeting that says, “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.” Delete it, too.
You are sending police to beat and kill people with these messages.
If you want to dismantle systemic racism and use your White privilege for change, stop reinforcing police mental-health response in every email and voice message you send out. (And stop listening to your lawyers, who tell you that you have to do this to protect yourself. From what are you protecting yourself – compared with the people who could get assaulted or murdered by police when they call 911 because you told them to?)
Stop fooling yourself. If you are a mental health professional, if you work for a mental health organization, then you and your organization need, right now, to come out for a ban on police so-called wellness or safety checks.
We need to end police wellness checks now. Police have no role to play in mental health. They kill people who did not need to die. Black and brown people especially. And if you work as part of this system, or represent mental health as an advocate, and you don’t make a clear line against sending police to deal with mental health crises, then, yes, you are part of systemic violence and you are helping to get people murdered.
Of course, we need to send some help sometimes when we are worried about people. This is not a false choice between sending police and doing nothing. If you think someone needs a “wellness check,” then OK, send someone other than the police! Send community members. Send clergy. Send neighbors. Send people who have been through emotional crises ourselves — “peer counselors” and workers. Send therapists. Send mediators. Send domestic-violence advocates. Send trained community-response workers with conflict-resolution skills. Yes, call the local county hotline; yes, have a dispatcher handle it; yes, have it be community-funded, with paid people ready to be sent out to help.
Just don’t send police. Ever.
Another thing you need to do: Make a stand to end police wellness checks. Make that phone call, post on social media, start a petition and share it, write an open letter to your boss, email your friends and co-workers, write to the media, meet with your local politician and congressperson. Right now. Now, when we have this unprecedented momentum for change in the U.S. and the world. Because George Floyd was murdered on camera and people are protesting.
Calls for mental health advocates and organizations to support the Movement for Black Lives may not have gained much support, and mental health advocates have been mostly silent on ending the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Maybe the time has come for that, too. Maybe mental health advocates can wake up to making systemic change in a brutally capitalist and authoritarian society that is driving people crazy every day. Maybe now is the time.
But can we at least join together at this crucial time to do the most obvious thing on police violence? Can we at least do the thing that hundreds of thousands of people around the world are demand in the streets, right now?
Can we at least join together in a united voice as the mental-health advocacy community, to call for an end to police so-called “wellness checks?” For an end to police responding to community health and mental health calls?
Can we at least be part of the movement to defund the police? Can we join calls to stop putting money and resources into police responding to mental health crises? Can we join the movement to instead put resources into community-controlled alternatives?
Thanks to Faith Rhyne for helping to inspire this essay.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.