It’s been two years since Daniel Prude was killed by Rochester police. He had been experiencing a mental health emergency when his brother called 911, desperately seeking help. But instead of being met with medical professionals and support, Prude was immediately put into handcuffs and a demeaning “spit hood,” even though he was unarmed and had complied with officers’ every demand. He was repeatedly mocked as he was forced to kneel, naked, on the freezing asphalt.

Three officers then felt the need to clamber on top of Prude, pinning his face and body into the ground until he stopped breathing and was later declared brain dead. The medical examiner ultimately ruled his death a homicide.

What Prude experienced is horrific and far from isolated. People living with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than the general public. And even the most conservative estimates show that nearly 1 in 4 fatal law enforcement encounters involve an individual with serious mental illness — with a disturbing and disproportionate impact on people of color.

Why do we respond to mental health emergencies with such a punitive and dehumanizing approach? If you’re experiencing a heart attack or if you were to lose consciousness and faint, we wouldn’t send the police. Emergency medical responders would come to your aid and they’d help you get to the emergency room as quickly as possible. Why are mental health crises the one type of health emergency we send armed law enforcement to handle despite the constant and tragic consequences?

Stigma has undeniably played a role in this, fueled by sensationalized stories in the media portraying people with serious mental illness as dangerous, “unhinged,” and ultimately a threat to society. The truth of the matter is people with serious mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators of it. 

At Fountain House, a national nonprofit fighting to improve the health and dignity of people most impacted by serious mental illness, this issue is deeply personal. One of our members, Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old woman living with schizophrenia, was killed by police responding to a mental health call at her Bronx apartment in 2016.

Since then, we’ve advocated for communities across the country to reduce police presence on mental health calls and instead send in trained mental health professionals and peers with lived experience who can better assess and de-escalate situations.

Taking a public health approach to mental health emergencies is not a new concept. In Eugene, Oregon, Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, has been around since the late 1980s and has had incredible success diverting nonviolent distress calls from police departments to teams of nurses, EMTs and trained crisis workers.

The model has not only proven to save lives and inspired countless programs elsewhere, but it has also saved the city tremendous amounts of money. In 2019 alone, CAHOOTS workers responded to 24,000 mental health emergency calls, of which only 150 required police backup — saving the city about $8.5 million in public safety costs and another $14 million in ambulance and ER treatment expenses.

This type of “care response” to mental health crises could have saved Daniel Prude’s life and we must work to quickly and effectively roll out as many of these programs across the country before 988, the revamped mental health crisis hotline, launches in July and increases the demand for more resources.

Like so many others before him, Prude wasn’t offered the help he needed and deserved when he was most vulnerable. He wasn’t asked how he was doing even though he was in distress. The bodycam footage makes clear that he wasn’t seen or treated as a human being even in his final moments.

People living with mental illness deserve the right crisis response in the right place, efficiently and effectively, every time. We’ve seen others pave a way forward with great success, and Attorney General Leticia James has even recommended care response measures. 

To this day, Daniel Prude’s family and community advocates continue to demand transformative change in how we support people experiencing mental health crises, recognizing it’s a job that law enforcement is ill-equipped to handle and doesn’t ultimately want to do themselves. It’s now time for legislators to take action and ensure Daniel Prude’s death is not in vain.


Mary Crowley is interim president and CEO of the national mental health nonprofit Fountain House.

Christina Sparrock is a member of Fountain House and a mental health advocate.


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