Four years ago, the neighbors of 66-year-old Deborah Danner, a Black woman with schizophrenia, called the police to report that she had been behaving erratically.
Minutes after arriving at her New York City apartment, a police officer fatally shot Donner. The officer claimed he acted in self-defense and was later acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges.
Donner’s story, while tragic, isn’t uncommon. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that roughly one in four fatal police shootings involved someone with mental illness. Those with mental illness who are arrested, meanwhile, often get needlessly incarcerated without the care they really need, contributing to the crowding of jails and the drain on taxpayer resources.
A new bill introduced on Tuesday by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) seeks to reduce the risk disabled people may face in police encounters by allowing trained mental health professionals to respond to such calls instead of law enforcement.
The legislation, called the Mental Health Justice Act, would establish a federal grant program encouraging states and local governments to develop the capacity to send mental health responders rather than police in response to 911 calls. Its co-sponsors include Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.).
“What this would do basically is take away some of the burdens our police officers face in having to respond to what clearly come in as calls for mental health assistance,” Porter said in an interview with HuffPost. “Just like we might dispatch fire [responders] if someone calls 911 and says there’s a fire, if someone calls in to report someone having a mental health issue, we ought to dispatch people who are qualified to do this.”
The proposal is modeled on a long-running and successful program in Eugene, Oregon, called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) that redirects non-emergency 911 calls that involve...