Police are not equipped to deal with mental health crises

The recent lawsuit against the Buffalo Police Department stemming from the alleged racial slur of BPD Captain Amber Beyer last May, while disheartening, is not surprising. After decades of an entrenched culture of racism, community members have grown to expect the unacceptable from BPD.

What is most disheartening about this particular instance is the fact that Beyer was, and still is, the leader of the BPD’s Behavioral Health Team, which is responsible for supporting some of the most vulnerable members of our community at a very sensitive time – in the throes of mental health crises.

BHT was proposed after an elderly, homeless Black man was shot by a police officer during a mental health call. A call about a man screaming for three hours led to multiple officers chasing him down the street with guns drawn. After trying to protect himself from what he perceived as a threat, he received two bullets in the abdomen. Instead of seeing this as evidence that police are ill-equipped to respond to mental health crises, the city doubled down and formed a team of officers and doctors to respond to all behavioral health calls, regardless of risk level. For many people, an armed, authoritative officer inspires fear rather than reassurance, and an unnecessary police presence can undermine otherwise peaceful resolutions. The discrepancy is deadly: People with mental health conditions are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than those without a diagnosis.

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Recognizing the urgency, cities across the country are moving away from law enforcement and co-response models toward community response teams comprised of health professionals and peers who address low-risk 911 calls without police. They address immediate needs and connect people to longer-term care, while avoiding the harms that result from a mismatched police response. Buffalo is very ready for a community response team.

Demand for a non-police, health-focused response has only grown since 2020. Earlier this year, Black Love Resists Rust completed our Public Safety Survey. We surveyed over 200 Black Buffalonians. When asked about their preference for non-violent emergency response, 46% of participants said they would prefer either an almost complete reduction in overall reliance on police as responders or a greater emphasis on responders who are unarmed and under no immediate threat of arrest. And, this September, in honor of Daniel Proud, who was killed by Rochester police during a mental health response call, dozens of Buffalo residents gathered to imagine what a local community response team might look like.

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We have suffered enough. Our mental health is impaired for a number of reasons, and across America we are seeing an increase in 911 calls involving cases of mental health crises. The recent news of Beyer’s racist slurs only highlights the necessity of establishing community response teams that have the necessary skills, training and compassion to respond to our people with care.

Katherine Franco is a social worker and Bianca Bassett is a mental health professional. Both are Black Love Resists in the Rust member.


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