Imagining Crisis Intervention Without The Police

Lives depend on mental health interventions free of fatality. We aren’t there yet, but we can get there eventually.

I come from a family of cops. My grandfather was a cop and was killed as a result of an injury on duty. My uncle is a retired cop, and my aunt worked in police department administration, sometimes being brought on ride alongs for calls involving women. Life for me was filled with positive messaging about cops. In my grandmother’s hallway hung Norman Rockwell’s painting, The Runaway. I remember vividly my aunt pointing to it and telling me how good, kind, and concerned the cop was for the little boy who ran away from home. The image is burned into my memory. The officer in the painting looks eerily similar to my uncle.

In elementary school, I remember police officers coming to visit us in class. They brought along fridge magnets shaped like police cruisers with the non-emergency number for our town’s station. Below it read: “If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.”

Makes sense, I think. Something scary happening? Call the police. Easy.

I would learn later in my life how my whiteness affects my relationship with emergency services. How other families, Black families, would be teaching their children at young ages how not to be shot by the police. I would learn how the definition of “safety” would be vastly different for me than Black people, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with mental illnesses. While I was learning to call the police in an emergency, other families and individuals were learning how to survive them.

As I make my case for 911 alternatives, I have to consider the way white supremacy has poisoned all areas of crisis intervention, “crime prevention,” emergency medical intervention, the prison system, and so on. The question is, what are the alternatives?

What Happens When You Call 911

First, we need to understand what happens when 911 is called in general. There are two main entities that will respond to a 911 call: Police and medical first responders. Once that happens, how the situation is handled is decided by law enforcement and first responders. They each will respond to the situation how they see fit, and their discretion is extremely broad. If we believe police are fair and properly informed, there should be no issue of trust. However, because of the scope of their discretion, law enforcement may decide to take a person in crisis to jail if they determine a crime has been committed. They may interpret a person in crisis as dangerous, as so many often do.

If you call 911, the best thing you can do is calmly inform law enforcement that this is a mental health crisis and this person is in need of treatment. If the person in crisis does not have a history of violence, it is vital that you inform the police of this.

It’s sobering to think that we have to be prepared for and intentional about dealing with the police. I imagine in many people’s minds — like mine when I was young — the police show up and save the day. The reality is, unfortunately, much different. It’s different for people with mental illness, people of color, Black people, LGBTQIA people; all of the most vulnerable populations. History tells this story best.

Tanisha Anderson

On November 12th, 2014, police responded to a 911 call regarding a woman in a fugue state, dressed in only a nightgown and barefoot, walking out of her house.

This woman’s IQ was said to be extraordinarily high. She ran a daycare with six children, was gentle and kind and family-oriented. She was Black. And she also carried a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, which she struggled with periodically in her life.

This night was one of those periods of struggle for Tanisha Anderson, and her family wanted to get her help. When officers arrived, Tanisha was alarmed. She called out for her brother and mother. One of the officers, Detective Aldridge, then slammed her onto the ground, knee pressing into her back, and handcuffed her. His partner, Brian Meyers, helped hold Tanisha down. When she stopped breathing, the officers did not call for an ambulance. They did not try to resuscitate her. She died shortly thereafter. The coroner ruled it a “sudden death in association with physical restraint in a prone position in association with ischemic heart disease and bipolar disorder with agitation”.

Tanisha was not armed. She did not try to assault the officers. And even if she had, it would not be grounds for murder. But in this case, officers Aldridge and Meyers used their discretion to murder an innocent woman who was in crisis, who needed help.

Nationwide, at least 25% of people who are killed by police officers suffer from acute mental illness at the time of their death. The latest research suggests that Black people suffering from mental illnesses are at an even higher risk than their white counterparts to experience police brutality. Yet we’ve witnessed law enforcement arrest white men after committing mass murder without incident. Dylan Roof, the 21-year old white supremacist who murdered 9 Black church attendees in Charelston was arrested peacefully, then given a Burger King meal by police. How can we justify the discrepancy between Black and white arrests? How do we shrug at the murder of a perceived threat and the protection of an undisputed domestic terrorist? It’s also worth pointing out that Tanisha was from the same city — Cleveland — as Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Black boy who was murdered by Cleveland PD for carrying a toy gun. The racist hypocrisy is hard to ignore.

Turning Inward

The same agency that responds to homicide cases or armed robberies should not respond to mental health crises. You might be thinking:What if the person in crisis is dangerous? Armed? Well, research to the rescue again: We know people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. This model of prejudiced thinking is parallel to the racist beliefs we hold about crime as well, and the same beliefs that lead to the sanctioned murder of Black people, mentally ill or otherwise.

I’m not denying that it is difficult to really know what the level of risk in a crisis situation is if you aren’t trained and the scene is chaotic and frightening. This is an opportunity to slow down and reflect.

  • Why are you calling the police? What do you hope will happen?

  • Do you feel your life is in danger? Someone else’s? How can you tell?

  • What do you hope will happen to this person when police/EMT’s arrive?

  • What is it about how this person looks or is acting that is scaring you?

  • Could that be about you and not them?

  • Who defines safety?

  • How do you know when you or someone else is unsafe? What can the police do that other professionals cannot do?

Understanding Crisis

We need to understand crisis as a language. It is the language of pain. More often than not, the crisis is an attempt by our psyche to make sense of the noise in our lives. Beginning with that interpretation of crisis rather than a fear-based approach will make us most able to help a person in need.

In peer support, we utilize something called the mutuality response when we learn someone is in crisis. Here is the general breakdown of steps that peer specialists and many other disciplines use to engage with someone experiencing a crisis:

  • Do not jump into problem-solving

  • Be mindful of word choice and non-verbals; does your body language appear fearful or annoyed?

  • Words mean different things to different people. Consider what you know about the person (culture, history, background) and approach with curiosity and a desire to understand.

  • Allow for alternative realities — Someone may be experiencing something different than you are. Do not tell them their perception is wrong. Validate the emotion. “I can tell this is painful for you.”

  • If you’re worried, say so. State what you observe, describe how you feel, say what you need to be comfortable, and preserve the relationship.

  • Review options: Can you drive this person to an emergency room yourself? Is there a place that would make them feel safer? What can you facilitate with this person to create safety?

  • Negotiate: what is going to make both parties be able to walk away feeling safe? This is the point where you may need to escalate the situation and involved a third party.

Third-Party Alternatives To 911

There are many resources available that you may utilize with a person in crisis before calling 911. Whatever you choose, make sure you communicate directly with that person. Seeking safety during a crisis should be a partnership.

  • For the Boston area, there is a crisis team called BEST (Boston Emergency Service Team) that will come out and speak in person with an individual that is in crisis and help determine whether hospital intervention may be appropriate. Oftentimes, they will even assist with transporting the individual to the hospital. This takes care of the need for police and EMT intervention, which can be quite traumatic, and as we discussed, an actual risk to life.

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a crisis support phone number that can connect you to resources in your area if you or someone you know is in crisis: 1–800–950-NAMI (6264)

  • NAMI also has a comprehensive guidebook to walk you through handling a crisis situation

  • The Not911 web and mobile app, which was developed by formerly incarcerated software engineers, “allows users to choose from a variety of city, state, federal, and nonprofit agencies to address issues ranging from domestic violence to homelessness, without police intervention.”

  • Don’t Call The Police, which gives a list of resources by city

These are extremely useful resources if you believe that a person in crisis is at a higher risk for harm by calling 911. Of course, if there is an imminent threat to life, life-threatening weapons, or you are actively witnessing an attempt on life, 911 is your quickest resource.

By challenging our thinking towards people with mental illnesses and crises, we can, quite literally, save lives. It is an unfortunate reality that the traditional system we have built into our lives must be subverted in this way, that it must be avoided in order to preserve life. By using the alternatives, we can imagine a safer, more inclusive, and equitable world for those most at risk. We have a moral obligation to do so in the wake of all the lives lost to law enforcement. For Elijah McCain, for Tanisha Anderson, for Breonna Taylor, for Tamir Rice, for George Floyd, for Sandra Bland, and countless others; we need reform.