For People with Mental Illness, a Call to 911 Can Be Deadly. It’s up to Us to Change that.

Thursday, April 26, 2018
Naomi Powers was scared. Her boyfriend, Billy Langfitt, had just lost his grandfather and his job. In the throes of a mental breakdown, Billy was running the streets of Spanaway in his socks.

Naomi called 911, but no ambulance arrived. Instead, a sheriff’s deputy showed up, and he shot and killed Billy.

I heard Naomi speak at the April 14 rally for Billy organized by Not This Time and co-sponsored by Disability Rights Washington, NAMI Eastside, and the ACLU of Washington. Ever since, I haven’t been able to get her words out of my head. I called for help and they killed him, she said.

In our state, police have shot and killed 5 people so far this year. In 2017, we lost 38 people to fatal police shootings, up from 26 in 2016. Each of these individuals is irreplaceable. Each belongs to a family and community that loves them, grieves for them, and will never be the same without them. People of color, people with disabilities, and people who lack adequate housing are disproportionately and unfairly at risk for being killed by police.

Although I am deeply moved by the devotion to justice displayed by the families of Damarius Butts, Daniel Covarrubias, Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, Che Taylor, Leonard Thomas, and too many others, I find it painful to speak at these rallies; instead I want the deaths to cease.

A complete lack of mental health resources in many communities across Washington means that 911 is often the only number to call when someone is seeking help for a loved one in crisis. Of the 987 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2017, mental illness was a factor in a quarter of the incidents. That desperate individuals are met with deadly force instead of help and compassion is unacceptable.

But while appropriate and ongoing crisis intervention training for police is critical, it is clearly not enough. Charleena Lyles died at the hands of police despite the crisis intervention training provided to the officer who shot her. The nexus between police shootings and the statewide crisis in mental health care availability is complex and multifaceted, and so must be our response.

Police departments in Bothell, Shoreline, and elsewhere have begun to “meet people where they are” by embedding mental health professionals in law enforcement teams. Partnerships like these bring critical assistance to individuals in crisis, and reduce the threat of violence for all involved. Not only do they save lives, they also help restore trust in police at a time when it is badly needed.

In our society, no one who is struggling should be forced to go it alone. People experiencing a mental health crisis, those seeking help for a loved one, and first responders attempting to come to their aid; each is better off when provided the support that embodies a fundamental truth: Life is sacred, and we are all in this together.