In the aftermath of the 2020 social justice protests and calls for reform against police brutality, the U.S. has begun to grapple with itself in finding ways to better protect Americans, mainly Black people and those in vulnerable communities. In acknowledgment, public officials and advocates have pushed for immediate change by challenging one phenomenon— how society responds to individuals suffering from mental health illnesses.       

According to a database published by The Washington Post, 1 in 5 people shot by police is battling some form of mental illness. However, the city of New York recently implemented B-HEARD (Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division) in Harlem where social workers, as opposed to law enforcement, are now sent to respond to mental health calls.     

The new program has since been applauded for its potential impact on the future of policing in Black communities. Black Americans have been disproportionately
policed for decades and in New York, Black residents are twice as likely as white people to be stopped by an officer, according to data The New York Times reported in 2020.

On Jan. 10, Patrick Warren, a 52-year-old Black man in Killeen, Texas, was shot and killed by a police officer at his home after his family had specifically called for psychiatric help. Instead of sending Warren's family a mental health deputy, as was done during a previous episode, the department dispatched an armed officer. 

Bodycam footage later revealed that Warren was in “emotional distress,” according to CNN. Unable to respond appropriately to health crises, the officer reacted to Warren’s behavior by firing his weapon. Warren later succumbed to his injuries at a nearby hospital. 

Warren’s story is eerily similar to that of other Black men, including 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. who had been experiencing a "violent psychological episode" before police arrived at his parents' home in Philadelphia on Oct. 26, 2020, NPR reported. After yielding a knife toward the officers, Wallace was shot and killed by seven rounds of police gunfire.  

His death sparked city-wide protests by residents who were angered by the use of excessive police force toward Black Americans. After the shooting, Wallace's mother said she called 911 for medical assistance, not for an officer, as Blavity previously reported.   

"We know this moment is incredibly painful, given so many failures over generations to protect all of Philadelphia's residents, especially those who are Black or brown, as we continue making measurable steps toward building equity, inclusive and public safety in our city, releasing this footage is a step, but also an indication of this failure," District attorney Larry Krasner said at a press conference. 

A 23-year-old Black man, Miles Hall, was killed by an officer after police responded to emergency calls at his residence in Walnut Creek, California in June 2019. Officers used four rounds from their firearms before attempting first aid on him. Almost two years later, CNN reported that no charges were to be brought against the police officers involved. 

A 2015 study from the Treatment Advocacy Center found that those with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. But New York City’s new program makes the promise of protecting Black and vulnerable residents appear rather possible. 

Responding authorities are equipped and trained to deescalate an event that otherwise may go awry with unskilled officers. In addition, they are not armed.

Early data from the program also reveals that this type of intervention is already working. An astounding 95% of the people who were experiencing a mental health breakdown accepted medical care after being treated by a trained specialist, vastly lowering unnecessary hospital visits.   

Now, the discerning idea to use mental health professionals in place of police during crises has grown in cities across the U.S. Starting next month, Minneapolis will introduce crisis teams that will be unaccompanied by police.

Since May, civilian social workers in St. Petersburg, Florida have also responded in the absence of police officers through a program being funded by the county police department, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Additionally, a new program in Durham, South Carolina will soon begin to do the same. Last year, city councils in Oakland, California and Los Angeles voted to develop their own pilot programs, CalMatters reported. 

According to Insider, the majority of these programs were largely inspired by CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), an intervention unit that originally developed in Eugene, Oregon. It prides itself on being fully person-centered with teams arriving on the scene "without the uniforms, sirens, and handcuffs that can exacerbate feelings of distress," according to Vera Institute of Justice. In 2019, its teams responded to 24,000 calls in which approximately only 300 required officers for backup. 

The management of mental health calls in vulnerable communities was seen as an urgent need when just last month Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri) introduced a public safety bill to Congress which already has 13 co-sponsors and more than 70 signatures from various organizations. With the purpose to focus primarily on prevention and healing rather than policing, the People’s Response Act aims to provide "health-based and non-punitive responses" to emergency crises. 

Our bill would help change that by directing the federal government to take a health-centered approach to public safety and investing in trauma-informed, community-based responses that will truly keep people safe," Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), a co-sponsor said. 

Kayla Reed, the executive director of action St. Louis and leader of the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project said the legislation is exactly what Congress needs to ensure protection for all Black people.

“[The People’s Response Act] moves us toward a shared vision of what truly keeps Black people safe,” Reed said.