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1A Across America: Unpolicing Mental Illness

Washington, DC police cruisers parked on K Street at the Occupy encampment in McPherson Square.
Washington, DC police cruisers parked on K Street at the Occupy encampment in McPherson Square.

If someone is in a mental health crisis, are the police the right people to call?

Law enforcement officials have become “the de facto facilitators of treatment for people with serious mental illness in America,” according to a survey of law enforcement from last year.

But some say the police were never meant to handle these types of situations. A 2016 Boston Globe investigation revealed that nearly half the people killed by Massachusetts police officers “over the last 11 years were suicidal, mentally ill, or showed clear signs of crisis.”

With protestors calling to defund the police, communities across America are exploring ways to divert money from police budgets to mental health services.

Will these changes be a boon to our mental health system? How did jails and prisons become America’s largest mental health institutions in the first place?

A note to listeners: We played some audio at 0:35 of a police officer tasing a man with a mental disability in distress. This is a non-lethal encounter that took place in Glendale, Arizona last summer. The audio is disturbing. If you’d like to skip it, it lasts for about 30 seconds.

1A Across America  is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.

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