BJA Director Delivers Statement at Senate Hearing on Law Enforcement Responses to Americans with Mental Illnesses and Disabilities

By Mai P. Tran

Denise O'Donnell

Denise O’Donnell, Director, U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights recently held a hearing to discuss the challenges law enforcement officers face when interacting with individuals with mental illnesses and/or disabilities, and the promising interventions to address these obstacles.

At the April 29th hearing—“Law Enforcement Responses to Disabled Americans: Promising Approaches for Protecting Public Safety”—Director Denise O’Donnell of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) delivered statements about the department’s support for evidence-based practices and promising interventions for individuals with mental illnesses and/or disabilities who are involved with the justice system. Under her leadership since 2011, BJA has invested in programs that improve the justice system’s response to these individuals—one of its top priorities.

“I am pleased to speak to you today about the strong commitment the Department, and BJA specifically, has to law enforcement in their growing role as the first responders to crisis incidents involving people with mental illness and developmental disabilities,” said Director O’Donnell said at the beginning of her statement.

Among the programs and the research that BJA supports is the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP), created in 2006 under the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA). The purpose of JMHCP is to facilitate collaboration among the criminal justice, juvenile justice, and mental health and substance use treatment systems, in order to improve access to effective treatment and increase public safety. Since 2006, BJA has awarded 287 JMHCP grants to sites that span 49 states, territories, and the District of Columbia. Among these, 74 grants (26 percent of the total 287 awards) have been awarded “directly to a police or sheriff’s department as a co-applicant,” said Director O’Donnell.

Director O’Donnell also discussed Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), which have been funded by JMHCP. CIT is an innovative first-responder model that trains law enforcement on how to appropriately interact with individuals with mental illnesses and/or disabilities. “There are over 2,800 Crisis Intervention Teams programs nationwide that are built on local partnerships between law enforcement agencies, mental health providers and advocates,” said Director O’Donnell. “Crisis Intervention Teams provide law enforcement-based crisis intervention training on assisting individuals with mental illness and a forum for partner organizations to coordinate diversion from jails to mental health services.”

To support this broader expansion, Director O’Donnell says BJA has partnered with the University of Memphis and the University of Illinois to create a “national CIT standardized curriculum for a 40-hour, classroom-based, in-person course for patrol officers and dispatch personnel.”

Other programs and research mentioned in Director O’Donnell’s statement include (a) National Law Enforcement/Mental Health Learning Sites, a project overseen by the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG Justice Center) in support of BJA, (b) the “Law Enforcement-Mental Health Data Collection Practices for Specialized Policing Response Programs” project, overseen by CSG Justice Center and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), (c) the creation of the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) in 2013, which will serve as a national clearinghouse and online resource with information on strategic responses to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), and (d) funding provided by the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program to improve criminal justice responses to individuals with mental illness.

The hearing, hosted by Subcommittee Chair Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), also featured a panel of law enforcement officers, a state judge, and parents of children with mental illnesses and disabilities who have had negative encounters with law enforcement. The panelists shared their experiences and offered recommendations on how to expand and improve the federal government’s role on this issue.

The hearing—also known as “Ethan’s Hearing”—was held in in honor of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome from New Market, Virginia who died in January 2013 after three off-duty Frederick County sheriff deputies entered into a physical confrontation with him at a movie theater. The incident inspired a movement among the Down syndrome community to seek justice for Saylor, and also raise awareness about the inequality, misunderstanding, and mistreatment often faced by this group as well as others with developmental and physical disabilities.

“It is important to recognize an often misleading perception in society that individuals with mental illness are violent,” said Director O’Donnell.  “A person with a severe mental illness who has no history of substance abuse or violence has the same likelihood of being violent as any member of the general public.”

In addition to BJA Director Denise O’Donnell, other witnesses at the hearing included First Deputy Superintendent Alfonza Wysinger of the Chicago Police Department, Sergeant A.D. Paul of Plano Police Department, Judge Jay M. Quam of the Fourth Judicial District of Minnesota, Pete Earley, a mental health advocate and bestselling author, and Patti Saylor, the National Down Syndrome Society’s Advocate of the Year and mother of Robert Ethan Saylor. To read their testimonies, click here.

For more information on the Senate hearing, click here.
To view Director Denise O’Donnell’s statement at the hearing, click here.
To learn about statewide law enforcement and mental health efforts, click here.