Don’t defund the police. Do this instead. | Column
People with untreated mental health illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter, but there are solutions, writes a Pinellas commissioner.
During a march in Seattle this summer, protestors carry "Defund the Police" signs, but what do they really mean?
During a march in Seattle this summer, protestors carry "Defund the Police" signs, but what do they really mean? [ JASON REDMOND/AFP | Getty Images North America ]
Published Oct. 25, 2020

What does “defund the police” actually mean? If you’re like me, you don’t really know, much less why anyone would want to do it.

At its core, “defunding the police” is irresponsible because the most basic function of government is public safety. Advocates of defunding the police call for law enforcement to not respond to 911 calls related to mental health or addiction issues. But these crisis situations are far more complex than a slogan like “defund the police” will allow.

Kathleen Peters
Kathleen Peters

According to a study released by the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), people with untreated mental health illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians. But the existence of law enforcement is not the reason for this striking figure. The true causes are the lack of comprehensive mental illness and de-escalation training, the lack of mental health counselors attached to the police and the lack of a comprehensive mental health treatment system (especially in a whole-health model).

When our country dismantled the mental health treatment system by eliminating mental health institutions, we sowed the seeds of our current crisis. Our under-investment in treatment left our law enforcement officers holding the bag. Our jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals. With nowhere to turn, the only way to get loved ones help and ensure a family’s safety has been to call the police. But officers are neither trained nor equipped for this.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Twenty years ago, Miami-Dade County stakeholders came together to figure out what to do with the extremely high number of people entering the criminal justice system — not as a result their desire to commit crimes, but because of their mental illness. They began by training law enforcement officers in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.

This program, led by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, teaches officers to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and recognize it as a behavioral health crisis requiring de-escalation and assistance, rather than a crime requiring criminal justice intervention.

Once de-escalated, they are trained on the mental health resources available and have options to assist in finding the citizen in crisis necessary help. Comprehensive jail diversion programs have also been implemented to prevent people with mental health issues from becoming trapped in the jail/ prison system. Through these intervention programs, a person suffering from mental illness is placed in a program that provides assistance with housing and case management. Success in the program means rehabilitation and recovery — not a criminal record.

Locally, the Pinellas County Commission should make a true coordinated system of care — with access through any door — a reality. The state would have to provide support to sustain the effort, and local mental health care providers have to buy in. Unfortunately, the Pinellas County Commission failed to aggressively move forward on changing the system this budget cycle, despite recommendations from a study of the county’s behavioral health system. A comprehensive plan for the establishment of a coordinated system, with interlocking and complementary interventions by both law enforcement and mental health professionals, was fully laid out. It included performance management, governance, funding, coordination, prevention, early intervention, along with receiving and diversion. Had the commission taken prompt action, Pinellas County would have a behavioral health coordinated access system in place within two years.

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Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, as well as our Sixth Judicial Circuit Public Defender Bob Dillinger, have stepped up like Miami-Dade. Their law enforcement and justice-oriented initiatives are providing diversion and intensive case management for citizens suffering from mental illness that have entered the criminal justice system. But they can’t do it alone — and our citizens should not have to be arrested to get access to coordinated mental health treatment.

In Pinellas County, we must swiftly fund a better system of care — a comprehensive system with easy access to services. A system that ensures individuals with severe mental illness are not left to deteriorate until their crisis incites a police response. A system that takes mental health and substance use issues out of the criminal justice system and puts them into the health care system where they belong. And if it is to truly succeed in Pinellas, the commission must take the lead. I will push for us to do just that in our 2021 budget, while leaving the law enforcement budget intact.

Properly funding mental health, not defunding the police, would be an incredibly significant step in allowing law enforcement to focus on true public safety threats, instead of expecting them to make clinical diagnoses in the field during a crisis. Pinellas County can and should be a national leader in behavioral health access and treatment reform. We have the ability. We simply need to fund it.

Kathleen Peters, a Republican, represents District 6, which covers mid-Pinellas and the southern beaches, on the Pinellas County Commission.