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Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and three of her House Democratic colleagues introduced a bill on October 20, 2020 to fund mental health first responder units in a bid to reduce police violence against mentally ill people. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and three other Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill on October 20, 2020 aimed at reducing police violence against mentally ill people. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) 

Proposal by Katie Porter, House Dems Would Fund Mental Health First Responders to Reduce Police Violence

The co-sponsors cited research showing people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers.

Brett Wilkins, staff writer

Four Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a bill aimed at reducing violence against people with mental illnesses by supporting the creation of special units that would be dispatched instead of police to respond to mental health crises. 

The Mental Health Justice Act (pdf) was introduced by Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.). The bill would create a grant program to fund the hiring, training, salaries, and benefits of mental health first responder units that would be deployed following relevant 911 calls. The measure is co-sponsored by 25 Democratic lawmakers. 

"Having a mental illness is not a crime, yet it is treated like one time and again. It is crucial we connect those in crisis with appropriate resources so they can get the care they need."
—Rep. Katie Porter

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, at least a quarter and perhaps as many as half of all fatal police encounters involve people who suffer from mental illnesses. They are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than other people. 

Furthermore, people with mental illnesses who are arrested are often charged with minor offenses, fueling the epidemic of mass incarceration in which approximately 20% of jail inmates and 15% of state prisoners—or over 350,000 individuals nationwide (pdf)—suffer from serious mental illness. 

"Having a mental illness is not a crime, yet it is treated like one time and again," Porter said in a statement introducing the bill. "It is crucial we connect those in crisis with appropriate resources so they can get the care they need."

Porter added that "too often individuals with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities are subject to unnecessary violence and are cycled in and out of our justice system when they'd be much better served by other community resources."

"This common sense legislation would enable mental health providers to be first on the scene when 911 is called for a mental health emergency, making our communities safer for all," she asserted. 

Scanlon said in a statement that "for too long, the problems of people living with mental illness and disabilities have been ignored, and they have ended up in our criminal justice system—often with fatal consequences."

"In order to address their needs, and change the culture of policing in this country, we must direct resources to meet those needs in a way that provides alternatives to and diversion from arrest, abuse, and incarceration," she added. 

"We must drastically change policing in America... Making our communities safer does not mean we treat everyone as a threat."
—Rep. Tony Cárdenas

Cárdenas also issued a statement, asserting that "we must drastically change policing in America" and stressing that "making our communities safer does not mean we treat everyone as a threat."

"The way we've criminalized mental health disorders and developmental disabilities has led to an increase in police-related violence and, in serious cases, death," he said. "This legislation will change emergency response protocols so that mental health providers are first on the scene of a mental health emergency [and] make our neighborhoods safer." 

The bill is endorsed by dozens of mental health and civil rights advocacy groups, including the NAACP, National Disability Rights Network, and the American Psychological Association. 

"We applaud Rep. Katie Porter for introducing legislation to establish a federal grant program encouraging states and local governments to develop the capacity to send mental health responders rather than police in response to 911 calls," said Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, one of the groups endorsing the bill.

"Countless people with psychiatric disabilities continue to be killed or needlessly incarcerated in situations where dispatching someone other than law enforcement could have avoided these senseless and tragic outcomes," she added. "The Mental Health Justice Act is precisely the type of legislation that Congress should be considering now and we will work with Rep. Porter to secure its passage." 

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