A nonviolent mental health crisis response team outside of police is needed in Oklahoma and beyond
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Too many families are suffering through an epidemic of mental illness and drug overdose. A mental health crisis response team is urgently needed.

A few months after his 30th birthday, my brother, Markeal Osborne, passed away in December 2019. Despite being a dedicated healthcare worker and a loving father, he struggled with mental illness for years. Like many Oklahomans, the reluctance to seek mental health services, especially in the Black community, once presented a border wall-sized barrier, causing my brother to substitute healthy assistance with unhealthy substances and people. 

With family members’ support, however, he finally sought mental health services and got his life back on track. But the negative influence of people surrounding him eventually proved detrimental to his healing, and the drug epidemic claimed him as one of its millions of victims.

Oklahoma is number one for childhood trauma. Measured as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), our abysmal ranking is directly linked to psychological problems, drug addiction, and a wide range of other developmental and health-related issues. 

Educators, mental health advocates, media outlets, and the state legislature have all recognized the need to take action on addressing Oklahoma’s mental health crisis. We realize the need for therapeutic solutions collectively, yet local government primarily responds with police officers and jail cells instead of a dedicated crisis response team.

Training police in mental health doesn’t reduce deaths

Lawton city officials showed their commitment to addressing this crisis when Council-member Onreka Givens-Johnson organized the city’s first-ever town hall on mental health amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, Lawton Police officers went through a 40-hour mental health training in 2019. Even officers have acknowledged the need for more therapeutic responses to mental health calls, as KSWO previously reported Lieutenant Mason saying, “while the training will not change the way they deal with these cases, it will help them come up with ideas to deescalate crisis situations.”

But even these training pieces for police officers aren’t enough to change the rate at which police kill mentally ill people. While thousands of police departments across the nation have adopted Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), it has done little to change arrest rates, officer injury, civilian injury, and use of force, according to a study from The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. The study concluded that between 2015 and 2018, 25% of the roughly 1000 people killed by police each year had a mental illness, even with thousands of police departments adopting mental health training.

When it comes to reallocating funds for a nonviolent crisis response team, one of the first things folks might say is, “this is anti-police and will lead to more crime and lawlessness.” Some who hold this view are understandably concerned with the security of our community. Many others will seek to use fear as a tactic to derail debate on this topic. 

Don’t buy into the fearmongering

In an example of lazy journalism, The Lawton Constitution attempted to spread fear and ignorance when it shared a fearmongering opinion piece from the Washington Examiner instead of having the diligence to form its own opinion. 

But we don’t have to trade security for compassion. And using the same tactics to solve old problems won’t work. 

At the end of my brother’s physical journey, despite losing the final battle with substances, Markeal had won the war over control of his mental health. 

Too many of our young Oklahomans are losing the war against mental illness and the drug epidemic. 

As communities across the country begin to rethink how to address the root causes of crime, cities like Lawton have an opportunity to display their values to the nation. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, either.

Cities across the nation are beginning to reinvest in alternative responses for mental health, substance abuse, and housing-related crises. Many show that it’s possible to form a crisis response team for mental health without eliminating a single officer position.

Case Studies

After the viral police murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests over the summer, cities as far as Minneapolis and as close as Norman, Oklahoma, began conversations around reallocating funding toward nonviolent forms of emergency responses.

In both cases, communities grew outraged and divided at the initially drastic proposals to eliminate or vastly reduce their police departments’ budget to reinvest those funds into social services and nonviolent alternatives. 

Yet, months after the phones stopped recording, the city councils of Minneapolis and Norman ended up allocating only about 4-percent of their police budgets toward nonviolent initiatives.

While the Fraternal Order of Police in Norman continues to fight the city’s residents’ voice with a frivolous lawsuit, the outcomes in these cases represent a compromise that saw no reduction in overall police staffing. The effects also resulted in funding for new services that address the root causes of crime and illness instead of the symptoms.

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has announced the city will begin to divert nonviolent calls for service away from SFPD to non-law enforcement agencies. Portland, Oregon, is doing the same thing.

Cities in both liberal and conservative-leaning states consider the use of alternative responses to nonviolent calls for service. These cities and municipalities include: Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Denver, Charlotte, N.C., Albany County, New York, Austin, TX, and even St. Petersburg, Florida, where city officials estimate the program will save officers from responding to about 12,000 calls per year. 

Most of these direct service programs are replicas of a decades-old crisis response program in Eugene, OR. CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) has provided mobile crisis intervention 24/7 since 1970. Teams consist of a medic and a crisis worker who can respond to an urgent medical need or psychological crisis, ranging from substance abuse and housing issues to suicide prevention, assessment, and intervention. 

More funding for crisis response teams, less vigils

Nevertheless, a nonviolent mental health crisis response team would be a new way to address an old problem. And recent history proves new ideas are needed. Lawtonians held a candlelight vigil and demanded answers after Lawton Police Officers shot and killed 19-year-old Brent Durbin-Daniels, shooting him six times. 

Unarmed when law enforcement shot him, police highlighted the fact that he had guns in his trunk, but the community has seen no transparency in the form of body cam footage. However, all sides agree that Brent Durbin-Daniels experienced a mental health crisis at the time of his death. 

As the number of cities taking this new approach continues to grow, cities have the opportunity to provide a direct service to folks that for years have fallen through the cracks. And we have the chance to show future businesses that this is a community worth investing in because we have decided to invest in ourselves.

At least one Lawton city councilor has expressed interest in the idea. Onreka Givens-Johnson, the city’s only Black council-member, has a proven track record of being a passionate advocate for mental health. She said a mental health crisis response team for Lawton is her “next step.”

“A crisis response team would be a vital part of helping any community,” Givens-Johnson said. “Officers responding to calls that involve citizens dealing with mental health challenges would benefit greatly by having the assistance of professionals in the area of mental health.” 

A crisis response team for mental health is needed

Givens-Johnson said that while the Lawton Police Department provides crisis training for officers and goes above and beyond the state-required training, having the crisis response team provides the officers the opportunity to focus on what they are primarily trained to do.

“I feel that this will increase the chances of connecting a citizen to mental health services and reducing the chances of those with mental health challenges or officers being harmed,” Givens-Johnson said.

More city officials across the nation should follow her lead. The question to ask isn’t whether it should be done but rather, how can we make it happen?

I’m asking folks to reimagine a society that treats mental illness with bullets and handcuffs and to envision a future where our limited police resources are spent where we need them most. We urgently need to reallocate funds in city budgets to create a crisis response team for nonviolent mental health, addiction, and housing emergencies.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...

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