A new bill will head to Congress to create a federal agency that would limit people’s encounters with law enforcement by funding community systems led by health officials, to respond to mental health emergencies, rather than police.
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., who worked more than 10 years as a mental health nurse in St. Louis, is the lead sponsor of the bill, which is an effort to curb the disproportionate share of police violence against people with mental illnesses and other health complications.
She said her work exposed her to the disparities and struggles her patients endured. She witnessed the punitive responses to people with bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia when they’re in crisis, she said. Now, as the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress, Bush plans to do something about it.
The People’s Response Act would establish a Division on Community Safety within the Department of Health and Human Services that would call upon nonpolice first responders for emergency situations stemming from mental health issues, substance use or other health complications. The division would be tasked with funding and coordinating research and offering grant programs to promote “non-carceral, health-centered investments in public safety” on the state and local level.
“What this will do directly is save lives,” Bush said in an interview, adding that people with mental illness may worry about being harmed by police. “What we will have done is change the culture, removing their crisis care from one that has to deal with law enforcement to one that actually works with the providers that would take care of them normally, people that understand what they’re facing.”
Three other Democratic representatives, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, are co-sponsors on the bill.
More than 1 in 5 people killed by police have mental illnesses, and more than a quarter of all people killed by police in the U.S. since 2015 have had a known mental illness, according to a Washington Post database of fatal U.S. shootings by on-duty police officers. Meanwhile, crisis intervention teams, a police program for responding to mental health crises, have been called ineffective, with critics holding that police are often not trained thoroughly enough to respond to such calls.
Activists and organizers have long condemned deploying police as first responders to mental health crises. Community advocates in Philadelphia spoke out after Walter Wallace Jr. was killed by police in October as he reportedly experienced a mental health episode. A police officer in Salt Lake City shot a 13-year-old boy who had autism in September after his mother called for help, saying he was experiencing a mental health crisis. And last March, 41-year-old Daniel Prude was in the midst of a mental health episode when Rochester, New York, police held him down with a hood over his head until he stopped breathing.
Anti-police violence movements have called for an end to relying on police for social services like responding to mental health crises, disciplining children and interacting with unhoused people. Although the bill is a federal effort, part of the plan aims to incentivize states and local governments to shrink their dependence on criminal legal systems and invest in community-led public safety initiatives. Bush said the stakes for passing this bill in congress are high and she is focused on being “intentional about making sure people know that we can get this passed.”
“From the very beginning, my team engaged with local community groups all over the country about this legislation,” Bush said. “People would have meetings and talk about activists and policing and protests, but they wouldn’t bring the actual people on the ground to the table. So that’s something I wanted to make sure I did differently. We have people involved who were locally based in St. Louis and in other parts of the country.”
Social movements have increasingly focused on policing in America, with calls to defund the police, abolish prisons or dismantle the police system in its entirety. Bush said that shifting the regulation of public safety from the Department of Justice to HHS would meet some of the demands of the movement.
She said the agency would include a federal first responders unit to provide crisis assistance. And through the new entity, HHS would fund grassroots, community-based organizations to implement violence prevention programs that don’t rely on punishment or incarceration.
According to the bill, the new division would focus on supporting those disproportionately criminalized by police. Driving motivations to address policing is the deeper understanding that Black Americans are twice as likely to be killed by police versus white Americans, and that Black communities experience heightened surveillance and criminalization, among other disparities. In the last year, however, advocates have pushed state and local lawmakers to implement a range of police reforms, including dismantling some police departments.
Community organizers have rebuffed reform efforts that allocate more money and power to police and deemed calls for more police training as procedural efforts that don’t adequately address police violence. When it comes to changing approaches to public safety, oversight is usually a glaring question. According to the bill, the People’s Response Act would establish a community advisory board, “reflective of the communities impacted,” that would ensure the division is meeting its purpose and the grants are going to the appropriate groups and organizations.
“When the community is involved and brought in in any capacity, it makes a big difference,” said Ohun Ashe, a collaborator on the bill and an organizer with the St. Louis social justice group Expect Us. “When nobody else is doing this, somebody has to.”