Among the things lost in the crowd of Democratic politicians running away from the slogan “defund the police”—and the Republicans racing to brand them with it—is the fact that police brass in some cities have actually been looking for new approaches that don’t involved spending millions to send armed-to-the-teeth cops out on every single call.
Denver, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Boston and New York are among cities that have at least experimented with pilot programs in which mental health professionals respond to calls about people in crisis, either in lieu of or along with gun-toting cops. But not every jurisdiction has yet gotten the message that sledgehammers aren’t necessarily the best tool for an emergency that requires a diplomat. And now, the Justice Department has launched a unique investigation into a police department over its use of the sledgehammer—cops—over a more diplomatic mental health approach.
The Justice Department said today that it’s looking into whether the state of Oklahoma, the municipality of Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Police Department systemically refused to provide access to mental health resources for people experiencing behavioral crises in Oklahoma County, the state’s largest jurisdiction. That failure, DOJ says, may have led thousands of people to have unnecessary contact with police and admissions to psychiatric facilities that may not have been warranted.
The investigation hinges on whether officials in Oklahoma violated a provision in the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits public agencies from discriminating against people with physical or mental impairments.
“Community-based mental health services, which are proven effective in transforming people’s lives, are critical to preventing a cycle of unnecessary institutionalization and avoidable contacts with law enforcement,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“The Civil Rights Division is committed to ensuring appropriate responses to behavioral health crises and protecting the civil rights of people with mental health disabilities.”
Just yesterday, the Justice Department announced a separate investigation into the police department in Worcester, Mass., over whether it engages in systemic discrimination.