Public Comment

Cops or Counselors? The Militarization of Mental Health

By Andrea Prichett
Friday May 24, 2013 - 10:30:00 PM

Recent events in Berkeley have laid bare many of the weaknesses in our approach to caring for those with mental illness. The February 2013 death of Kayla Moore in police custody is just the most recent example. There have been others such as the tragic murder of Berkeley resident Peter Cukor in his own home by a mentally ill person. There was also the recent hog-tying and hooding of homeless youth Jeremy Carter though he was never even accused of being violent and, of course, the daily pipeline of individuals who, instead of getting help managing their mental health, are being processed into prisons where they are in even more jeopardy. The current government system protects neither the person needing help or the public. It begs the question of whether it is the police who should be responding to mental health cases at all. 

Everyday in Berkeley, there are people with mental heath issues who are unable to get the help they need. In cases of emergency, mentally ill people are in serious danger because often those responding to the call are officers trained in using violence to control “suspects” and who come to the encounter prepared for a fight. Notice that Berkeley Police Association is eager to acquire tasers as another “tool” for dealing with people in mental crisis. 

Most police know nothing about how to provide care to people in psychological crisis. Its not their job. While police consider whether to purchase tasers, tanks or drones to supplement their already sizeable arsenals, funding for mental health services has been cut to the bone. The Berkeley Mental Health Mobile Crisis Unit staff has been reduced as has its hours of operation. Copwatch has been told that there are only three full-time staff to respond to emergency mental health situations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Clearly, it would be better to have non-uniformed people responding to these emergencies. Equally obvious is the fact that three people cannot cover an entire city at all times. 

However, more funds for city staff is not the answer either. Last week copwatchers on a shift where we had heard a call that a woman on Shattuck Ave. was punched by a man. On the scene we saw a barefoot, homeless man in handcuffs speaking with a cop. It turned out that the woman had been punched lightly, but called the cops because she was concerned that he was unstable and might hurt others. Cops searched him then put him in the police car and took him to Santa Rita jail. When asked why the man was not considered to be a 5150 candidate, the cop replied that the homeless man had been assessed earlier in the day and “did not fit the criteria” that the Mobile Crisis Unit has for declaring someone in need of an assessment. Since he was thought to be on illegal drugs, the Mental Health Unit people were not able to offer services. It is shocking that the services we do manage to provide in this town do not recognize the fact that people with untreated mental and physical issues tend to self medicate with alcohol, legal and illegal substances. The Mobile Crisis Unit folks should be very glad that the man only punched someone and did not do more (preventable) harm to the woman. 

We need a new way to deal with increasing numbers of people with various kinds of mental health issues. There have been discussions about of the use of spit hoods, “control holds”, and training materials that advocate the “swarm” technique when trying to manage a resistant person. We have to re-envision and civilianize mental health care. Leaving police the task of providing mental health care to our community is a mistake. 

Change must happen. Berkeley Copwatch along with some of Kayla Moore’s family members, mental health providers and others are sponsoring a public workshop to air some of these issues and to seek proposals for alternatives to calling police when a loved one is suffering from a breakdown. All members of the public are welcome. The event is “Cops or Counselors: The Crisis in Mental Health. It will take place on May 30th at 7pm at East Bay Media Center, 1939 Addison Street, (Between MLK & Milvia), Berkeley. We encourage you to share your thoughts, stories and ideas for how to help Berkeley to regain its reputation as leader in the struggle for the rights of people with mental and physical disabilities.