Emancipate NC Executive Director Dawn Blagrove writes an urgent call for action in Raleigh this Mental Health Awareness Month:

Helplessness. Fear. Internal turmoil. These are just a few of the emotions you may feel if a loved one was having a mental health crisis. You know something is wrong, and you need professional help  – who would you call? Currently, Raleigh residents’ only option is the police, but their presence and response in these crises are almost never helpful and usually escalate the situation, reduce safety for all involved, and even result in tragedy. 

Raleigh residents deserve a better option, one the City of Durham is already offering through the successful Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team (HEART). Raleigh City Council and Mayor Mary Ann Baldwin should follow suit and invest taxpayer dollars in a non-law-enforcement crisis health response team to provide safe and meaningful support that is accessible to us all.

It is estimated that approximately 5% of the US population lives with a serious mental illness, but they make up more than 20% of fatal police shooting victims. Assuming Raleigh has a similar rate of mental illness, more than 23,000 of our residents are at a heightened risk of dying during a police encounter. This disturbing reality is especially poignant for Raleigh’s Black residents, who make up approximately 28.2% of the city’s population yet 69% of the drivers RPD reported using force against during traffic stops in 2022.

Police officers are ill-equipped to address mental health crises, and no amount of training, or money spent on it, can prepare a police officer to respond better than a mental health professional. Law enforcement often interprets mental health symptoms as hostility, and the symptoms themselves affect a person’s ability to respond to commands. Their presence signifies trouble for most, and brutality for many, exacerbating, and even onsetting, symptoms such as fear of persecution and paranoia. The result is escalation and danger for all involved, the most stark of which is for our Black residents, who are disproportionately impacted by police violence and often fear for their lives in any interaction with them.

The Raleigh Police Department’s ACORN team of police officers and social workers is not an accessible or acceptable option for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by policing and police violence. It is also counter to recommendations from mental health advocates who say a reduction in encounters between police and those with serious mental illness may be the single most immediate and practical strategy for reducing these fatal police shootings. 

Data from pilot programs across the country shows that a non-law enforcement alternative will give us a much better, and safe, return on taxpayer investment. Durham’s HEART responders successfully resolve most calls on-scene, and provide follow-up care, all while diverting calls from the police and other first responses. For certain calls that pose a greater potential safety risk, HEART pairs clinicians with police officers, but data from the first ten months of the program show a police presence is mostly unnecessary. Their responders reported feeling safe in 99% of encounters, and 0% of calls needed police department backup for team safety. Non-law enforcement crisis response teams also benefit the broader community – A 2022 study found Denver’s STAR program reduced “low-level” crime by 34%.

Our country, and the City of Raleigh, have tried to make policing the solution to every social problem, but it hasn’t helped; in fact it’s harmed our communities. Police unions will lobby for law enforcement agencies to take on responsibilities like crisis response because doing so signifies legitimacy and brings more funding. Police departments will take on these responsibilities even when officers are ill-equipped to fulfill them, and outcomes are unsatisfactory. Making police the solution to mental health crises has resulted in numerous tragedies across the nation. If Raleigh had a HEART (program), Reuel Rodrigues Nunez, Keith Collins, Soheil Antonio Mojarrad, and other beloved members of our community might still be alive.

It’s been more than three months since Emancipate NC, myself, and other members of the community demanded Raleigh establish a non-law enforcement crisis-response team akin to Durham’s HEART program. While Durhamites fight to expand the successful program, Raleigh drags its toes in providing people in crisis and their loved ones with the safety and care we deserve.