Compassionate response to 911 calls with social workers makes sense

We need to move away from police as first responders to mental health crises

IN OCTOBER OF 2016, Boston police officers shot and killed Terrence Coleman, a 31-year-old South End man who suffered from schizophrenia and paranoia, after Coleman’s mother called 911 to have an ambulance take her son to the hospital. According to police, Coleman attacked responding emergency medical technicians with a knife, a report that Coleman’s family vehemently disputed at the time. In July of that year, the Boston Globe reported that “nearly half of people killed in Massachusetts police over the last 11 years were suicidal, mentally ill, or showed clear signs of crisis….”  

The Alternatives for Community Emergency Services Act (the ACES Act), legislation sponsored by State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, would provide grant funding to cities and towns in Massachusetts for a non-law-enforcement, community-based crisis response mechanism. This funding would be used for an unarmed, community-based emergency response option for 911 calls to help individuals experiencing mental and behavioral health emergencies. Community-based mental health professionals such as social workers, community health workers, and peer support specialists are best positioned to respond to mental and behavioral health emergencies, and funding provided under the ACES Act would ensure that such a community based, non-law-enforcement response is available in those cities and towns that choose to opt into this much needed resource.   

Law enforcement officers – and I was a Boston police officer for 27 years – are trained in specific ways to identify violations of the criminal law and to make arrests accordingly and to use all necessary force in order to do so. People in behavioral crises are often acting out in conspicuous ways that officers may interpret as threatening and potentially violent violations of one or more criminal laws and they will often move to make arrests and to use force if necessary. Not infrequently, this can result in tragic outcomes for those experiencing mental and behavioral crises.       

Law enforcement officers have become the default first responders in situations involving those in crisis who do not have access to adequate mental and behavioral health care. These are often those suffering from addiction, mental illness, and a lack of housing. This police-as-default response mechanism disproportionally affects communities of color. These types of crises most often do not require a response by armed law enforcement officers and the presence of the police can in many situations exacerbate an already tenuous situation and actually cause harm to those needing help. 

Emergency calls to the 911 system that are more appropriately handled by non-law-enforcement responses, consisting of social workers and other mental health professionals, often relate to substance use disorders and mental health crises, health and safety check-ins, a lack of health care or housing, and other emergencies that often afflict residents of marginalized communities. According to the National Association of Social Workers, “Existing social services-based emergency response models show that non-violent crisis situations can be resolved without law enforcement, connecting individuals to ongoing services and support, while also saving money.” 

Funding made available through the ACES Act would go to the cities and towns and community-based organizations, and not to law enforcement agencies. The mental and behavioral health professionals hired through ACES Act funding would be employees of the cities and towns or community-based organizations, and not law enforcement. Importantly, the ACES Act would not seek to divert any existing funding from local law enforcement agencies. 

Meet the Author
I support the ACES Act and call on members of the Massachusetts Senate and the House of Representatives to pass this critically important legislation. It is a prudent, timely, and compassionate means of ensuring public safety in our communities. 

Tom Nolan is a visiting associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College, a former Boston police lieutenant, and the author of Perilous Policing: Criminal Justice in Marginalized Communities.