The police in St. Petersburg, Fla., knew well that Jeffrey Haarsma had mental-health issues. Officers had been to the 55-year-old’s home at least 25 times in the year prior to an emergency call on Aug. 7, 2020. But the lone responding officer shot and killed Haarsma, who was unarmed, as he attacked her during an attempted arrest over a minor offense. While Pinellas County officials later decided the shooting was justified, they also concluded the call should have been handled as a mental-health issue rather than a criminal investigation.
Since that day, there have been nearly 2,000 fatal shootings by police officers in the line of duty. Roughly 1 in 5 involved a police response to someone showing signs of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Both the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer responding to a 911 call over an alleged counterfeit bill and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, have drawn appropriate attention to police behavior. But what about when they are called to deal with nonviolent emergencies? How we design our first-response systems to deal with urgent events involving mental health and substance abuse merits similarly careful scrutiny.
At least a third of the emergency calls to which police respond could instead be safely directed to health-focused emergency responders such as mental-health professionals, paramedics and social workers. Doing so is clearly humane because it provides people in distress with appropriate healthcare rather than an arrest (or worse). Mental-health first responders can reduce the risk of tragic and violent escalation and attenuate the substantial financial costs of shunting mentally ill citizens into the criminal-justice system.