the View

Elze calls for mental health responders operating independent of police departments


Published November 4, 2020

headshot of Diane Elze.
“Most police officers are not trained to handle mental health calls in a non-violent manner. It’s not a priority in police departments. ”
Diane Elze, associate professor
School of Social Work

Policymakers in Western New York communities should consider dedicating resources to developing systems in which trained professionals independent of police departments would respond to mental health calls, a UB social work researcher says.

“I’m speaking locally at the moment, but this is clearly a national issue,” says Diane Elze, associate professor in the School of Social Work. “Most police officers are not trained to handle mental health calls in a non-violent manner. It’s not a priority in police departments.”

Elze’s suggestions are not without precedent.

While calls to shift funds from the police departments in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Minneapolis to social services have been under debate, other communities such as Denver have a concrete plan in place that has a paramedic and social worker from the city’s mental health center responding to mental health emergencies, rather than armed officers.

Denver’s Support Teams Assisted Response (STAR) is a pilot project that answers low-risk calls related to depression, poverty, homelessness and substance abuse.

For over 30 years, the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, has had a mental health crisis worker and a medic responding to a diverse array of mental health crises calls.

“This is what we should be doing in the city of Buffalo,” says Elze. “Instead of indiscriminately pouring money into the local police department, we should be asking what do people need: housing, food security, good paying jobs, access to health care, including mental health care.

“Once those needs are met, communities begin to look much different than they do today.”

Elze says the Brown School at Washington University’s Center for Social Development recently published a policy brief that outlines areas of suggested change to policy and practice in police departments offering a viewpoint from social work.

The policy brief recommends, among other things, that non-violent community issues be shifted out of the police department and into a department for solving community social problems.

“This is critical,” says Elze. “It’s not about social work partnering with police; it’s about approaching the issue in a novel manner with trained mental health professionals. The only police involvement would be specific training to dispatchers, who would then be able to direct the appropriate calls to the professionals trained to respond to mental health issues.

“What we’re doing now isn’t working. It has to stop,” Elze says. “I am not an expert on policing, but as a social worker, I have to say something: People are being killed.”