DOJ: D.C. police response to 911 calls may violate rights of mentally ill

The D.C. government may be violating federal disability law by sending police officers rather than trained mental health responders to deal with 911 calls for psychiatric emergencies, the Justice Department said this week, bolstering a lawsuit against the city brought by local nonprofits.

“Relying on a less effective, potentially harmful response … may deprive people with mental health disabilities of an equal opportunity to benefit from a critical public service,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement Thursday. “People with mental health disabilities must have an equal opportunity to benefit from a city’s emergency response system.”

The intervention puts the federal government, which handles prosecutions in D.C., in the middle of a long-running local and national effort to deal more effectively with psychiatric emergencies, particularly as the homeless population grows.

“The Department of Justice has been concerned nationwide about egregious violations of the rights of people with disabilities due to local governments’ failure to ensure that a mental health crisis receives a mental health response,” said Michael Perloff, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C., which along with Bread for the City sued D.C. in July. “Those exact issues are going on in the District of Columbia.”

Bread for the City, a local institution that offers food, health care, clothing and other essentials to people in need, said its resources are being drained by dealing with frequent psychological crises because calling 911 is “ineffective and harmful.” The city has mental health clinicians and certified peer support specialists, according to the lawsuit, but “has failed to provide sufficient funding, training, or coordination to adequately staff and support these teams.” The homeless population in D.C. has been increasing, as has demand for mental health crisis support.

In 2021, D.C. started a pilot program to divert some mental health calls from police to unarmed behavioral health experts. But the lawsuit filed last year said less than 1 percent of 911 calls in D.C. for mental health emergencies get the clinical response. Instead, the suit says, people in psychological distress are routinely met by armed police officers who “frequently aggravate the emergency and increase the trauma experienced by the individual in crisis by, for instance, needlessly handcuffing the person or using excessive force.”

In response to questions from the D.C. Council last year, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s office said that while “only a fraction of the potentially eligible [911] calls” were diverted from police to behavioral health staff — 327 out of 1.2 million in 2022 — it was a “promising start.” D.C. police says all officers get either mental health first aid or crisis intervention training, but the plaintiffs say those programs are no replacement for career professionals and peer counselors with lived experience.

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The suit “seeks to eliminate a harmful obstacle in the existing system so that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate and benefit,” attorneys for the Justice Department wrote in its court filing. “This is consistent with the [Americans With Disabilities Act] requirements.”

Justice Department attorneys emphasized in their court filing that the federal government “takes no position” on the suit generally and is only asserting that D.C. cannot get the lawsuit dismissed by arguing, as lawyers for the city have, that there is no discrimination because people with mental health disabilities get the same physical emergency care as everyone else. To expand mental health emergency response is a demand for “new services,” the city said, which is “a policy argument, not a legal claim.”

The Justice Department responded that “such a limited view is at odds with the interrelated nature” of government services and “serves to obscure discrimination that may otherwise be apparent.” In its news release announcing that it was weighing in on the lawsuit, the Justice Department noted that federal investigations in Minneapolis and Louisville concluded that the police response to mental crises was illegal and discriminatory.

The D.C. attorney general’s office and the D.C. police declined to comment on ongoing litigation. The police union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In court filings, the city earlier responded that it is “already making great strides” to improve its handling of mental health emergencies but that any failure to do so is not discrimination that can be sued over. The D.C. police union has also weighed in against the suit, saying that “a police response is always necessary due to the inherent threat to the health and safety of the individual, those around them and the surrounding officers.”

A national Washington Post investigation found that between 2019 and 2021, at least 178 people were killed by police who had been called to help them in a mental health crisis. After the death of George Floyd in 2020 and nationwide protests against police use of excessive force, many big cities began experimenting with ways to decrease officers’ involvement in mental health crises. Denver and Eugene, Ore., are often cited as models for unarmed interventions.

The judge overseeing this case, Biden appointee Ana C. Reyes, is also handling a long-gestating suit alleging that D.C. has not provided mental health treatment to children of low-income parents as required by law, including emergency crisis support, leaving them more likely to end up in psychiatric hospitals or jail. The city is fighting that lawsuit as well.

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