"Mental illness should not be your ticket to death."
That is what Caroline Ouko said after watching video footage of her son's death while in police custody. Irvo Otieno, a 28-year-old aspiring musician, was reportedly suffering from a mental health crisis when he was placed under an emergency custody order. But like many others before him, Otieno did not receive the appropriate help from the criminal justice system. Instead, that system cost him his life, reported the USA Today.
There is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the events surrounding this tragedy. Nevertheless, it is a stark reminder that there is an urgent need to improve how communities address mental health crises.
Police are not the appropriate responders to every mental health crisis. Law enforcement should be focused on preventing and solving serious crime, and are often not sufficiently trained and equipped to respond to crisis situations involving people suffering a mental health emergency.
Local policymakers must create an environment that enables better and more comprehensive community mental health services that address mental health needs before they become crises. And when crises do occur, we should have appropriate responses that do not rely solely on law enforcement.
Each year, 2 million jail bookings involve people with serious mental illness. About 40% of incarcerated people have a history of mental illness. What's more, 63% of those with a history of mental illness never receive treatment while incarcerated.
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Police and the criminal justice system at large have a critical role in ensuring public safety. But they do not have the same knowledge, training and expertise as mental health professionals and should not be the first responders for most situations involving a person experiencing a mental illness crisis.
According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Crisis Intervention Team Training is a "40-hour curriculum taught over five consecutive days." A week in a classroom is simply not enough to prepare law enforcement for managing a problem as complex as mental illness, especially considering the types of high-adrenaline, and often violent, situations that police officers must deal with on a regular basis.
Officers need more training so they can better support mental health professionals on calls where their presence may still be required.
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