Commentary: Instead of focusing on police reform, invest in community organizations, create better alternatives
The issue of police violence is so pervasive in the United States that the American Public Health Association called out police violence as a public health crisis this year and wrote an abstract on addressing law enforcement violence as a public health issue in 2018. Police had killed 986 people as of Nov. 18, leaving only 16 days in 2020 when police did not kill someone.
These numbers are devastating but still don’t show how bad the issue is. People with mental illness and disabilities are increasingly at risk of police violence. A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation from 2013 to 2015 found that nearly one-third to half of all people killed by police are people with disabilities, including those with mental illness and medical disabilities.
Police forces, like many oppressive systems in this nation, won’t overtly say that they see people with disabilities as disposable and unworthy of life, but the police should be judged on how they respond to those with mental illnesses and disabilities. Even with the presence of a psychiatric emergency response team (PERT) in San Diego, the minimal training that police officers receive is still not sufficient for them to be able to successfully deal with mental health crises. Furthermore, PERT does not always respond to calls, and, when it does, it’s not always in a timely manner. As a result, police officers are dispatched to calls regarding mental health crises, which can, at times, be a death sentence. This was the case for Alfred Olango, Fridoon Nehad, Raul Rivera, Dennis Carolino and several others in San Diego. In fact, over the past five years, there has been a number of Black families who call police for help with a mental health emergency, only to have their loved one killed by police as a result. Because of this, many Black families become averse to calling police officers in mental health emergencies.
Calls to “defund the police” have become more mainstream in the wake of the protests across the U.S. following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals. The activists and organizers who took up the call to defund the police also asked us to have radical imagination: to envision a more just and equitable world. For as long as people have been oppressed, we have developed radical ways to care for one another and keep each other safe when the government and state have turned their backs on us. In this spirit, we call on you to imagine a world where an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis, and, instead of calling the police, where there is a higher likelihood of that person being killed or injured, someone could call a mobile rapid response team, which includes community members and clinicians who are trained in de-escalation and decolonized mental health first aid. READ MORE