Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at Taking the Call Conference

1 year ago

Remarks as Delivered

I want to echo the Attorney General’s thanks to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the University of Cincinnati for putting together an extraordinary agenda for this convening. 

Participants in this conference span the spectrum of experts – including law enforcement leaders, judges, government officials, health professionals, individuals with mental illness, researchers, advocates and so many more. Your diversity of experiences is critical: addressing the issues faced by people with mental illness requires a holistic approach that relies on the cross-sectional expertise that you all bring to this conference.

The Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General and I have had numerous conversations about ways in which the department, in coordination with other agencies, can ensure that, whenever possible, those who need mental health treatment can get access to services before getting involved, or further involved, with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

So I am truly excited that you have all joined us for the next two days to address this important issue. We have come together because we share a commitment to some simple core values: first, those in crisis must be treated with compassion, respect and dignity. Second, building trust between law enforcement and those they serve is a cornerstone of maintaining public safety. Third, real comprehensive reform in how we treat people with mental illness will make policing safer and the justice system more effective.

Nearly three decades ago in Memphis, Tennessee, the fatal shooting of Joseph Dewayne Robinson highlighted the need to change the law enforcement response to people in crisis. In the wake of that tragedy, the first crisis intervention team (CIT) program was developed. And over the years, thousands of officers have been trained in CIT to effectively interact with people with mental illness; de-escalate crises; reduce the use of force by officers; and connect people with treatment instead of the criminal justice system. 

Today, we’re at another watershed moment. Two historic events coincided in 2020: first, the tragic death of George Floyd, and the widespread community mobilization that followed, renewed a necessary and urgent national conversation about community trust, equal justice and policing. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly strained our public health, employment and housing systems, and exacerbated our mental health crisis.

These events have reenergized efforts to change how we treat people experiencing a mental health emergency. Training officers how to respond to people in crisis remains as important as ever, but we now recognize that placing the responsibility entirely on law enforcement is inadequate. Other sectors of our communities – behavioral health professionals, supportive housing providers, employment agencies, community leaders and others – all have essential roles to play in keeping our communities safe and providing people with mental illness and their families with necessary support.

Indeed, our law enforcement partners have repeatedly told us that they cannot alone shoulder the responsibility of addressing the needs of people in crisis and that change is needed for them and the communities they serve. Officers have difficult – and, at times, very dangerous – jobs. So much honorable work done by law enforcement professionals does not get enough attention, and we commend such professionals and their families for their daily sacrifices. The stress and trauma of these jobs can take a heavy, heavy toll. We shouldn’t add to their burden by requiring them to address a wide array of social problems – problems that cannot, and should not, be solved by the criminal justice system alone.

Law enforcement is joined by many others in calling for greater support for people with mental health issues. Since the start of my tenure as Associate Attorney General, I have heard from prosecutors, judges, sheriffs and advocates – including many of you. And what I have heard is an overwhelming consensus that our society must support behavioral health programs so that we can treat – not jail – those in crisis where that is possible.

We must commit to expanding options because we have a collective responsibility to care for those who need treatment. And we simply cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the challenges presented by untreated mental illness, co-occurring substance use, homelessness and poverty.

We also cannot sustain a system in which jails and prisons are the largest mental health providers for people with severe mental illness in cities and counties across this nation. We know that, once incarcerated, people who have severe mental illness are likely to spend more time in prison than those who don’t. And when released without treatment, they are likely to get arrested again. By providing community-based treatment to people with mental illness, we can break the cycle of arrest and incarceration for the most vulnerable members of our society.

We may also save lives by expanding options. According to The Washington Post, almost a quarter of all fatal officer-involved shootings since 2015 have involved people with mental health issues.

Although no single program or service will prevent every tragedy, we know that a comprehensive approach that includes community-based mental health care is integral to effective solutions.

I am heartened to see that so many communities have engaged in concerted efforts to expand diversion programs to ensure that people with mental illness are connected to community-based treatment and are kept out of the criminal justice system altogether where possible. I am also excited to see the many innovative approaches for answering the calls when they do occur. Many communities have evolved from relying solely on law enforcement, to collaborating among law enforcement, trained health professionals, government leaders and community members, and creating new programs that best serve the needs of the community.

These innovations include programs modeled on the CAHOOTS program, where health professionals respond to certain types of calls; co-responder programs, which pair health professionals and police officers; case management for high utilizers, and many more. No single model can be prescribed for every jurisdiction, but we do know that active engagement with the community and government leaders is essential for building programs that save lives, protect people with mental illness, and make policing safer and more effective.

As states and localities continue to develop these innovative programs, the department stands ready to support and amplify their efforts. We recognize that this will require a whole-of-government approach, and we look forward to engaging our partners across the federal government to coordinate resources in public health, jobs, housing and the justice system.

As the Attorney General noted – the Department of Justice has long supported this work. BJA’s Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP) has been a key partner in establishing a number of successful programs. I want to emphasize that JMHCP funds can be used for wide array of programs involving people with behavioral health needs, including first responder programs, community courts, crisis stabilization units, training for public safety and mental health providers and programs that support intergovernmental cooperation between state and local governments.

We also know that there are challenges to establishing and maintaining these programs, and we are proud of our efforts to provide technical assistance, training and resources to those in the field. Just two weeks ago, the department’s COPS Office – for Community Oriented Policing Services – announced $33 million in funding under the Community Policing Development program to provide technical assistance to advance community policing programs, including crisis intervention team partnerships between law enforcement and mental and behavioral health professionals.

The COPS Office’s CRI-TAC Collaborative Reform initiative also provides technical assistance to state, local, territorial and tribal law enforcement agencies, and the Center for Justice and Mental Health Partnerships offers free consultation to any community that requests help to support their efforts in diverting people away from the criminal justice system and safely connecting them to treatment and supports.

As more and more programs are established, the department can engage in research and evaluation, and identify those innovations that prove effective and consider ways in which such programs can be scaled to other jurisdictions. In addition, the department’s Civil Rights Division uses its enforcement authority to protect the rights of people with mental illness by promoting a community-based approach where appropriate under the circumstances.

Supporting law enforcement wellness is also a really important part of this process. Just last week, at a roundtable with state and local law enforcement, the Deputy Attorney General and I announced $7 million in COPS Office grants under the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) Program to improve the access to mental health and wellness services for law enforcement. These are just a few of the resources that we have available, and I know you will be hearing more about them tomorrow. 

As the convening begins, I want to emphasize that I see this conference as a new chapter of our conversation. I see tremendous energy and momentum among local, state and federal partners ready to address these complex issues.

And I see a common vision – whether it’s police officers who interact with people on the streets; sheriffs responsible for managing jails; judges whose dockets are filled with people cycling in and out and back in for low-level offenses; and community members who want their loved ones to be healthy: we all want to treat people with mental illness with dignity. We all want to reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration. We all want to support and strengthen officer wellness. We all want to promote public safety. And we all want to build trust between police and the communities that they serve.

Thank you for your leadership, vision and innovation as we forge forward together in pursuit of equal justice and safe communities.

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