Opinion: Police Need More Mental Health Training

The Hill

By William G. Brooks III

Approximately 10 percent of police calls involve a person with mental illness, making police the nation’s de facto first responders to mental health crises. Despite being on the front lines, some officers do not have the training to recognize nor appropriately respond to a mental health crisis.

A crisis like attempted suicide.

Bryce Coutinho had a history of substance use and attempted suicides, resulting in multiple encounters with the police.

One such encounter was during a fight with his girlfriend. When the police arrived, Coutinho was found lying on a bed with a knife and fresh gash to his forearm.

The officer retreated, drew his gun and demanded Coutinho drop the knife. Instead, Coutinho moved toward the officer. Believing his life was in danger, and knowing he had little room to create a safe distance between himself and Coutinho, the officer discharged his weapon twice.

Coutinho was pronounced dead at the scene.

Stories like Bryce Coutinho’s are too common for people living with mental illness and too often they end in loss of life with sensational news headlines as collateral.

More than 42 million American adults are affected by mental illnesses every year. Of those, two million will be jailed. These startling statistics drive home a shameful fact: People experiencing a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter police than medical professionals.

People living with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to die as a result of a police encounter compared to the general public. In 2017, one in four killed by police were living with a mental illness.

To address these tragic statistics, we need to supply adequate tools that police can use when they respond to mental health emergencies, so they can do so in a safe, effective and caring manner that de-escalated tense situations. Additionally, we need to provide the appropriate skills for police to care for themselves.

It is critical that police receive specialized mental health training — and Massachusetts is leading the way.

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