Encounters with people in mental health crisis show bias: What the DOJ report says

June 28, 2024

AZ Central: Phoenix police violated rights against people with behavioral health disabilities, the Department of Justice found after its nearly three-year-long investigation.

The report states the Phoenix Police Department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it discriminated while dispatching calls for assistance and responding to people in crisis.

The Justice Department’s report recounted multiple cases of police officers’ use of force when responding to behavioral health calls, including kneeing one man who attempted suicide, handcuffing a 15-year-old girl on the ground and shooting PepperBall rounds at a man, among other anecdotes.

During a training session for supervisors on patrol tactics and leadership, DOJ investigators heard a trainer describe a mental health disability as a “pre-attack indicator.” The Justice Department wrote the city’s policy “teaches and perpetuates false and harmful stereotypes that prime officers to escalate encounters with people with behavioral health disabilities.”

The Justice Department looked into “patterns and practices” to determine if there were systemic discrimination. They found two:

  • The city’s 911 call takers default to dispatching police officers to behavioral health calls rather than sending a crisis response team.
  • Phoenix police officers fail to make “reasonable modifications” when interacting with people with behavioral health disabilities.

The city’s 911 call center receives about 2 million calls per year, and police respond to about one-third of them, the report states.

Phoenix has had “uneven results” in reducing its reliance on officers responding to behavioral health calls, the report found.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said Phoenix police have a “hair-trigger tendency” to use indiscriminate and overwhelming force, and that tendency is both pronounced and harmful.

The report found people with behavioral health disabilities have unequal access to Phoenix’s emergency response system, in violation of the ADA.

911 call takers failed to divert calls

Every month, about 5,000 dispatched calls are related to behavior health, the report states. Police predominantly respond.

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