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On Wednesday, the Tulsa City Council will vote on passage of a nearly $800 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

mental health budget
Behavioral health professionals and paramedics on Street Crisis Response Teams are handling non-violent mental health calls instead of police under a San Francisco Department of Public Health pilot program. (Courtesy San Francisco Fire Department via Twitter)

Among the changes being proposed is funding to increase the availability of the city’s Crisis Response Team (CRT) from three days a week to five days a week.  The initiative, which operates for nine hours a day, seeks to ensure that first responders have greater access to support for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. 

While the mayor’s push for expansion has been welcomed news for many Tulsans, calls to increase funding even further continue.

Last Wednesday, June 9, marked four years since Tulsa resident Joshua Barre was killed by Tulsa police while experiencing a mental health crisis. Barre, 29, was shot and killed after walking down the street with a knife in his hand in North Tulsa.

At the time of his death in 2017, the now expanding CRT did not exist. Since then, the Tulsa Police Department’s annual budget has increased by more than $20 million. The current budget calls for more than $122 million in funding for the department. Much of this increase has been leveraged to raise salaries and add additional officers to the force.

In the council’s final public hearing on the budget before the vote, family members of Joshua Barre and Joshua Harvey took to the podium last week to call for further expansion of the city’s mental health crisis support.

Family members of police brutality victims plead for change

Etta Barre, Joshua Barre’s mother, was already in tears when she began addressing the council.

“We need some funding for mental health,” Etta Barre told the council. “It is ‘I’ in illness and ‘we’ in wellness”.

Joshua Barre’s sister, Nyesha Hall, also spoke before the council. Hall acknowledged that expanding the CRT program to five days is “a push forward”, but called for more.

“What about the times that they’re not available? What do you do then? Who do you call?”

“This is personal. Today marks four years that we’ve not seen Joshua or heard his voice. If Joshua would have gotten the proper help he needed when he was crying out, when we knew it was a crisis, he would still be here,” she said. 

“But he didn’t. And it cost him his life.”

Barre pleaded with councilors to find “a few hundred thousand dollars” in a budget of $799 million to ensure a crisis response team was available 24/7.

Roma Presley, the mother of Joshua Harvey, also issued an emotional plea to the council to invest more in mental health crisis support.

Presley’s son Joshua died in 2018 when Tulsa Police tased him 27 times in the lobby of a downtown bank. 

“They killed my son when he was in his last moment of crisis,” Presley said, weeping at the podium. “Why? Please!”

“Joshua was going through some tough times in his life. And if we just had a little bit more help, maybe we could have saved his life.”

Following the pleas from these family members, several councilors and audience members were visibly moved to tears. 

Telehealth presents opportunity for enhanced crisis response

Multiple studies show that individuals experiencing mental health crises in proximity to law enforcement are up to sixteen times more likely to be shot by police than those who aren’t. Tulsa, in particular, has one of the highest use of force rates across the country, according to the Police Scorecard

Enhanced crisis intervention training (CIT) for officers can equip law enforcement officers to navigate severe mental health crises. However, studies show that this training alone does not necessarily reduce rates of use of force if officers do not have access to support from a mental health professional.

Communities across Oklahoma have implemented measures to increase access to mental health services for individuals experiencing a crisis.  The Grand Lake Mental Health Center (GLMHC) has partnered with police departments in Pryor, Bartlesville, Owasso and more. 

“It’s literally like having a mental health therapist ride in your police car with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” said Jim Warring of GLMHC in an interview with News on 6.

Calls for enhanced mental health investment grow ahead of budget vote

Since last week’s emotional meeting, interest in providing additional funding to the mental health crisis response team has grown. It is unlikely that the council will be able to propose a change to the budget by Wednesday’s vote. However, building momentum suggests the possibility of reallocating funding after the budget is passed.

The Tulsa City Council will meet Wednesday at 5pm at City Hall to discuss and vote on the proposed budget. Members of the public are able to speak on the budget as an agenda item prior to the vote.

The Black Wall Street Times is a news publication located in Tulsa, Okla. and Atlanta, Ga. At The BWSTimes, we focus on elevating the stories of our beloved Greenwood community, elevating the stories of...