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What is problematic about the recent announcement from Grand Rapids to have mental health workers collaborate with the GRPD?

July 23, 2020

On July 20th, the City of Grand Rapids, specifically the City Manager, made an announcement of it’s, “intent to expand mental health partnerships as part of the City’s ongoing efforts to improve public safety outcomes.” 

The local news media reported on this announcement, but essentially just re-posted the City’s Media Release, without bothering to ask important questions about what this announcement means.

There was lots of buzz on social media and several non-profits have chimed in on the announcement, singing the City’s praises. Again, no real engagement and no hard questions being asked about what this will all mean.

It is important that we acknowledge that this announcement comes in the midst of a major community push to Defund the GRPD, with Commissioner Lenear stating during the July 21st City Commission meeting that nearly 6,000 community members have engaged the city on the matter of Defunding the GRPD. One could see this as a public relations move or by some as a positive outcome because of all of the public pressure.

City Manager Mark Washington acknowledges in the announcement that the traditional response – sending cops – is not the most effective. Not only is what Washington said an understatement, it ignores the fact that communities have been calling for a social services response model for decades.

So, what is problematic about this recent announcement from the City? First, and this is more of a procedural issue, but why does Chief Payne get to decide whether or not, “an expanded co-response model with a mental health or behavioral health professional could work.” The police are tasked with enforcement, but should not be creating policy or deciding whether or not to implement policy.

Second, the City’s announcement lists a number of types of calls where a mental health professional could be applicable; Disorderly intoxication, Drug overdose, Intoxicated person, Mental health crisis, Suicide crisis, Mental health transport, Disorderly youth/juvenile, Panhandling and Neighborhood dispute. One could argue that most of these types of calls could be handled exclusively by social service or mental health professionals. In fact, in a 2019 study done by Hillard Heintze LLC, as reported by MLive, determined that: 

“Across the GRPD, officers are not tasked in alignment with a strategic vision, which results in inefficient use as officers are tasked based on demand inflows, rather than a guided strategic vision that outlines how and when resources are allocated,” the study reads.

The study done by Hillard Heintze LLC, also determined that 70% of calls to the GRPD are non-emergency calls. You can see here on the right, the breakdown of types of calls that the GRPD responds to. With 70% being non-emergency, wouldn’t it follow that conflicts or complaints could be dealt with, without the need of police officers.

Third, according to Alex Vitale (author of the book, The End of Policing) hundreds of people with mental illness are killed by cops on an annual basis. Police do not have the capacity to make a mental health diagnosis and statistically, when police respond to concerns about someone with mental health issues, too often it results in the person being arrested. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2 million people with mental health issues are jailed every year and that the number two cause of death in jails and prisons is suicide. NAMI estimates that 83% of those incarcerated with mental health issues don’t have access to the treatments they need. Vitale believes that what is happening with police responding to these types of calls, is the criminalization of mental illness. Having police present with mental health professionals only escalates potential harm.

Fourth, having cops present with or partnering with mental health professional ultimately lends greater legitimacy to police departments and their bloated budgets. If the public was encouraged to call 311 instead of 911, police involvement would be reduced and the public would see that most conflicts can be resolved through non-violent means, whether that means that friends, neighbors or community professionals take initiative to provide the support that people need in a crisis or when there is a conflict. This is the exact kind of outcome that the Grand Rapids-based group Together We Are Safe has been advocating for over a year now, by distributing a document entitled, Before Calling the Police, Ask Yourself

Lastly, if there was more equity in our community, where people had sufficient income, affordable housing, good health care and the ability to enjoy life, then there would be less of a justification for the GRPD. Grand Rapids City officials are always talking about equity, yet thousands of people in this city are suffering from poverty, systemic racism, high rent costs, lack of adequate health care and tremendous stress and pressure to make ends meet.

Having the GRPD partner with mental health professionals is a false solution. Working towards greater equity and dismantling structural violence would not only reduce the need for cops, it would drastically improve the quality of life for people in this community. However, despite the rhetoric, Grand Rapids City officials do little to dismantle structural violence. The City’s resistance to community calls to reduce the funding of the GRPD sends a strong message to residents that the City is committed to maintaining a system of power and inequality.

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