• In the US, people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter.
  • 1 in 4 deaths from police interactions involve someone with a serious mental illness.
  • A new programme in Denver, US, replaces police officers with health care workers on mental health and substance abuse calls.
  • In its 748 call-outs, the programme has seen zero arrests.

Across the US, people living with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than the rest of the population. And as many as 1 in 4 deaths from police interactions involve someone with a serious mental illness.

So what would happen if health workers responded to scenarios related to mental health, substance abuse or homelessness instead? In Denver, Colorado, they might have found an answer: a dramatic fall in escalations that might otherwise result in an arrest.

In fact, the city’s police chief, Paul Pazen, told CBS News he believed the city’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) programme has even saved lives.

A step in the right direction

The issue of fatal police shootings has become more visible in the US in recent years. There were 1,004 such incidents in the US in 2020.

Number of people shot to death by the police in the United States from 2017 to 2021, by race
People shot by police dropped significantly in 2021.
Image: Statista

In January 2021, 58 people lost their lives in a police shooting. Seven of those victims were Black. According to the data journalism site Statista: “The rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 34 fatal shootings per million of the population as of January 2021.”

The American Psychiatric Association says that the incidence of mental illness among Black and African Americans is broadly similar to the general population of the US. But when it comes to accessing treatment, things are different – the US National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that only 1 in 3 Black adults in the US who need mental health care receive it.

In its first six months, from June to November 2020, the STAR team responded to 748 calls, which all came via the Denver police 911 and non-emergency phone lines. The incidents in question ranged from trespass to drug problems and mental health crises – and were all handled without the involvement of police officers.

Call-out incidents responded to by the Denver STAR team.
Call-out incidents responded to by the Denver STAR team.
Image: Denver Police Department

Treatment not chastisement

Denver’s programme is shining a light on an issue that US-based nonprofit the Treatment Advocacy Center – which lobbies for access to effective treatment for people with severe mental illness – says has often escaped attention.

In its 2015 report Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters, the organization called on policy-makers to ensure people with serious mental illness receive treatment before their behaviour leads to action from the police. It also highlighted the need for more complete statistics on fatal law enforcement encounters.

In the report, the organization wrote: “There is abundant evidence individuals with mental illness make up a disproportionate number of those killed at the very first step of the criminal justice process: while being approached or stopped by a law enforcement officer in the community.”