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Is moving money from police into mental health the answer?

(WCAX)
Published: Jun. 11, 2020 at 5:59 PM EDT
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The idea of defunding the police and moving some of that money to social services is getting traction around the country in the wake of George Floyd's death.

We've heard police chiefs say for years that mental health calls are some of their most challenging and that they need more help with them. But where they disagree with critics is the solution. And some advocates who focus on mental health aren't so sure that moving money around is the solution to ending police violence or systemic racism. Our Cat Viglienzoni explains why.

"We don't see it as an either-or that we can't get enough mental health unless there's less law enforcement," said Catherine Simonson, the chief client services officer at the Howard Center.

Simonson says their organization has not taken a position on the idea of defunding the police and reallocating that funding into social services. She instead highlighted their collaborations with law enforcement in Chittenden County, citing their long-running Street Outreach Team in Burlington and their newer Community Outreach Teams with half a dozen other municipalities.

"Our street outreach team responds at times where it doesn't make as much sense for law enforcement and where it would make more sense for staff who have expertise in mental health or substance use issues," Simonson said.

But some argue the mental health system isn't bias-free and they are concerned moving money into mental health without addressing inequalities there will only prolong systemic racism.

"You can label anyone with a mental health diagnosis based on your own implicit biases. In fact, research suggests black people are routinely disproportionately diagnosed with mental illnesses," said Wilda White, a community activist focused on mental health and race. She's also the former executive director of Vermont Psychiatric Survivors.

White calls the idea of defunding the police a "fast food" solution. And says what society really needs to do is address the legacy of slavery.

"Racism takes a huge psychological toll. Oftentimes, people label the toll that racism takes as a mental illness and then try to treat that mental illness. Instead, we should be trying to eliminate racism, particularly its effects on people who are subjected to it," White said.

For their part, the Howard Center says it's trying to hire more diverse staffers and make sure everyone goes through training to understand the needs of all their clients.

"We are not exempt," Simpson said. "We are a system and we have to look at ourselves, too."