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New Pilot: Harlem Tests No-Police in Mental Health Emergencies - Karen Maniraho

MANIRAHO, HOST: This week yet another decision was made not to charge police officers involved in the killing of another unarmed Black man experiencing a mental health crisis, Daniel Prude.

This spring, a pilot mental health initiative will launch in three police precincts in Harlem which together accounted for over 7,400 mental health-related 911 calls last year.

Yet given recent cases of law enforcement escalating mental health crises, it remains to be seen whether communities of color will be willing to use this service once it’s launched.

Don Kamin is a psychologist and former police academy instructor. He’s now Director of the Institute for Police, Mental Health and Community Collaboration in New York. I asked him if he thinks the program is a step in the right direction.

KAMIN: I think it’s great. I will say that I think that we need a police response to some calls and those are situations where there are concerns about dangerousness and/or illegal behavior. But the majority of those calls, those mental health calls, are not about that and they don't require a police presence. Simply put, a mental health crisis, deserves a mental health response.

MANIRAHO: As we know so far this program would involve, people would call in and two EMTs and one social worker would arrive on the scene. In terms of your experience, would these measures of de-escalation strategies work?

KAMIN: Well, obviously it's hard to know in advance. However, I will say that certainly having mental health clinicians – a social worker – certainly is, I think, the right approach. Sometimes, even before an officer has a chance to say or do anything, their mere presence can escalate a situation through no fault of the police officer. So if we think about replacing police officers with clinicians – I think that makes a whole lot of sense.

MANIRAHO: Your comment on police potentially escalating a situation is so timely given the recent announcement of a grand jury choosing not to indict the Rochester police department after the homicide of Daniel Prude.

Given that so many communities of color have a distrust of police when it comes to mental health emergencies, what can be done to make sure that communities of color use this service if it's available?

KAMIN: I think simply, education around the service exists that it's a non-police alternative to respond, to support, to help, to de-escalate, and refer individuals who are in crisis. I would hope it wouldn't be met with much, if any, resistance at all.

MANIRAHO: You've personally led efforts to develop crisis intervention, both in your time, as a Police Academy instructor and at various levels in New York state. Could you talk about efforts that could be taken to ensure that these de-escalation strategies are taught? Whether to the current people that would be involved in this mental health pilot program or in the future for police, if it was a situation where they were needed.

KAMIN: So there's a variety of different, I think, training, approaches. Now what we do with the – in our police training– is we have a lot of didactics around mental illness and ways to communicate and de-escalate. But more importantly than the didactics is the scenario training or the role playing that we do.

It's one thing for people to be sitting in a class and listening and having some discussion. It's a little bit different when you take that kind of that newfound knowledge to sort of apply to skill-based scenarios. And so we do a lot of that when we get to training police officers.

MANIRAHO: Don Kamin, the Director of the Institute for Police, Mental Health and Community Collaboration. Thank you so much for your time.

KAMIN: My pleasure.


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