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Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) speaks at The National Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls "100 Women for 100 Women" rally in Black Lives Matter Plaza near The White House on March 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. The organization and its supporters are urging President Joe Biden to release 100 women currently incarcerated in federal prison.

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) speaks at the National Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls "100 Women for 100 Women" rally in Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House on March 12, 2021. (Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Cori Bush Proposal Aims to Keep Mental Health Crises From Ending in Police Violence

"Public safety is a public health issue. It’s time our approach reflects that," said the Missouri Democrat.

Jessica Corbett

As a United Nations report on Monday underscored the need for "immediate, transformative action" to address systemic racism worldwide, particularly in policing, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush unveiled a bill that aims to promote "an inclusive, holistic, and health-centered approach to public safety."

"The People's Response Act will transform public safety into a system of care rather than criminalization, healing rather than incarceration, and prevention rather than policing."
—Rep. Cori Bush

The People's Response Act (pdf) would create "a new federal first responders unit of unarmed, appropriately trained professionals to be deployed across the country to respond to mental health and substance use crises," Bush (D-Mo.) explained in a series of tweets.

The bill is also co-sponsored Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), along with 16 other House Democrats.

"Public safety is a public health issue. It's time our approach reflects that," Bush said in a statement. "The People's Response Act will transform public safety into a system of care rather than criminalization, healing rather than incarceration, and prevention rather than policing."

Bush—who was a nurse and pastor involved in protests in Ferguson, Missouri after police killed Michael Brown in 2014—shared a video on social media that highlighted some people of color who were having mental health crises or in need of a wellness check when they were killed by law enforcement.

Decrying the nation's "flawed approach to public safety," Pressley suggested the legislation would spark positive change by "directing the federal government to take a health-centered approach to public safety and investing in trauma-informed, community-based responses that will truly keep people safe."

Specifically, as Bush's office outlined, the bill would:

  • Create a new public safety division within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to fund and coordinate research, technical assistance, and grant programs related to non-carceral, health-centered investments in public safety;
  • Launch a federal first responders unit that will support states and local governments with emergency health crises;
  • Research alternative approaches to public safety, including coordination of research and policies that are being implemented across HHS and other agencies to center health-based and non-carceral responses throughout the federal government;
  • Provide $7.5 billion in grant funding to state and local governments, as well as community-based organizations, to fully fund public safety and improve crisis response; and - Establish a $2.5 billion First Responder Hiring Grant to create thousands of jobs and provide funding to state, local, and tribal government, as well as community organizations, to hire emergency first responders such as licensed social workers, mental health counselors, substance use counselors, and peer support specialists, in an effort to improve crisis response and increase non-carceral, health-based approaches to public safety.

Noting that "the old approaches have been tried and tried again—only to continue failing our communities," Bush asserted that people nationwide "deserve a better response to mental health and substance use crises," and the new HHS division would save lives.

"Following a summer of protests to save Black lives, elected officials have a duty to respond to the demands of the people," she said. "Across the country, millions mobilized to demand that we transform our system of public safety to build a future where Black, brown, Indigenous, and marginalized communities can live full and joyous lives."

"The House of Representatives is the People's House and we need the people's response to this moment," the congresswoman added. "We need the People's Response Act."

The bill is endorsed by over 70 organizations, from the ACLU and Black Lives Matter to Color of Change, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Advocates echoed messages from the bill's sponsors.

"It's clear that the wholly punitive, carceral policies of the last several decades have failed. It's time for a new approach based on what communities want and need," said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the U.S. Program at HRW.

Scott Roberts, senior campaign director of criminal justice at Color of Change, called the People's Response Act "a powerful counter to the carceral-based policing system that has hurt so many communities and destroyed so many lives."

ACLU senior policy counsel Aamra Ahmad celebrated that "this legislation forges a new path by investing in community-based alternatives that are more effective at ensuring public safety while supporting survivors of violence, responding to mental health crises, and valuing human dignity."

"Far too many people with psychiatric disabilities, and particularly those who are people of color, have died or experienced needless incarceration due to avoidable contacts with law enforcement," said Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy for the Bazelon Center. "Law enforcement should not be the default response to mental health emergencies."

Maritza Perez, director of DPA's Office of National Affairs, noted that "for people who use drugs in particular, expanding access to harm reduction services and investing in non-carceral, non-law enforcement responses to a public health issue will save lives."

The People's Response Act "is landmark federal legislation inspired by Black organizing and Black lived experiences," explained Angela Austin, director of operations and policy and Black Lives Matter Grassroots.

"The bill is a product of the demands and actions called forth from families directly impacted to upend a law enforcement model that harms our communities instead of protecting us," she added. "Now it's time for Congress to act and set a precedent for public safety that allows all communities to thrive. Our future, our freedom, and our lives depend on it."

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