Social Workers and Mental Health Advocates Write Open Letter to Mayor Brown to Oppose New Crisis Mental Health Services Policy

pictured:Family and supporters of a 60-year old mentally ill man, Willie Henley, recently protested  outside of B-District station after he was shot by police.

(Local social workers and mental health advocates have written an open letter to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the Buffalo Common Council in opposition to the use of social workers with and/or within police departments, an intention announced by Mayor Brown on September 14th 2020, two days after Willie Henley was shot in the abdomen when police officers responded to a mental health crisis call.)

Dear Mayor Brown and Buffalo Common Council Members, 

We, the undersigned, are professional social workers and mental health professionals writing to express our strong opposition to the use of social workers with and/or within police departments, an intention announced by Mayor Brown on September 14th 2020. While embedding social workers into police departments and/or having social workers accompany police to mental health calls may appeal to the general public, it is ineffective, unsafe, and unproven to reduce police violence in mental health crisis situations. 

Social Workers are bound by-and accountable to-a specific code of ethics, which is reviewed and revised regularly as our work continues to shift and expand. This code of ethics outlines our profession’s core values (i.e., service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence), principles and standards, many of which do not align with the Buffalo Police Department’s (BPD) methods of intervention. As calls for police accountability become louder and louder, we do not believe that the social work profession, with many accountability structures in place, can effectively and ethically work under a system that is so pervasively lacking in accountability without jeopardizing the integrity of the profession and community. 

Like police, social workers have historically been complicit in upholding and enforcing white supremacy and institutional racism, from refusing to serve Black people in early social service delivery systems, developing and protecting segregated systems, to mistreating and disrespecting Black clients, and implementing racist policies in child welfare, juvenile justice, the criminal justice system, education, health care, and other institutions. We the undersigned wholeheartedly reject continuing this harmful legacy, and refuse to be used by unjust systems to perpetuate white supremacy. 

As social workers and mental health professionals working within a community experiencing complex trauma(s), many at the hands of the police, we uphold the principles of trauma-informed care, the foundation of which is safety. There is no evidence that police working with social workers promotes safety. Police presence during a mental health crisis actually decreases safety for the affected individual, bystanders, and officers. Officers decrease safety by their actions and by their presence. The uniform, the presence of a gun, and their harsh communication of orders escalate situations involving people having a mental health crisis. Police are primarily trained to use force and physical control, tactics that do not work with a person having a mental health crisis. 

The training and education of social workers and other mental health professionals, when compared to that of police officers, are grounded in an entirely different ideology. As police grow more concerned about public safety, we have seen an increase in militaristic police responses including assault rifles, tear gas, rubber and live bullets and armored vehicles. In contrast, the mental and behavioral health world has responded to the increase in behavioral and mental health needs by increasing community based efforts to provide services and increase trust, providing opportunities for choice and collaboration with affected persons, increasing continuing education and training (often at the individual worker’s expense) and whenever possible empowering affected persons to take part in decision making processes. All of this does not even begin to touch on the vastly unequal power dynamic between police officers and social workers, especially as outlined in the formation of a behavioral health unit within the Buffalo Police Department.

Mental health is a public health issue not a criminal justice issue. Mental health conditions are the only medical conditions that are addressed by the legal system and not the healthcare system, a harmful and outdated practice. Police presence during mental health crises criminalizes and increases the stigmatization of mental health, making those in need of preventative or crisis mental health services less likely to seek services. As we saw on September 12th, many mental health calls responded to by police have resulted in injuries and criminal charges filed against the individual in need of help. Twenty-five percent (25%) of police killings involve a person with a mental health issue. It is no secret that over-policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods and violent responses by police to mental health calls disproportionally injure, criminalize, imprison, and kill our Black and Brown neighbors. Mental health needs should be met by the mental health and healthcare system, NOT our incredibly flawed criminal legal system.

The forming of a behavioral health team within BPD is clearly a band-aid approach; a way of pushing mental and behavioral health issues within our community out of sight of the public eye. Our existing social support systems including mental and behavioral health services are incredibly underfunded. In Buffalo, housing insecurity, lack of accessible and responsive healthcare, food insecurity, job insecurity, poor living conditions, pervasive discrimination, and other social and economic determinants of health are associated with mental and behavioral health problems among our city’s residents. The current pandemic only exacerbates these problems. Therefore, we demand: 

  1. Immediate ratification of Daniel’s Law. Named in honor of Daniel Prude, this law would ban police from responding to mental health calls. 
  2. Mental health professionals should respond to mental health calls independent of police. One in four killings by police involve someone with a mental health issue. We demand the creation of a mobile emergency first responder system to respond to mental health calls. This program should a) operate fully independent of the BPD b) be culturally responsive and prioritize the hiring of BIPOC community members c) operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and d) be fully funded to ensure a timely response to calls and fair pay for workers.
  3. Creation and implementation of a Behavioral Health Advisory Council. In order to determine how best to meet the crisis mental health needs of community members without the police, the Common Council should designate a Behavioral Health Advisory Council.  This council will a) be made up of social workers, mental health professionals, crisis survivors, community health workers, peer advocates, and community activists who identify as a BIPOC and/or are leading the call for racial justice, b) be responsible for identifying the best practices for non-police crisis intervention for the city to adopt and fund. This council may wish to explore options for creating a new Department of Public Safety at the city level, potential grants of municipal funds to community organizations, or partnering with the Erie County Mental Health Department as a possible administrator of crisis response services. The council should also provide ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of the new services. 
  4. Ensure more adequate funding for crisis prevention and intervention-focused mental and behavioral health programs. Redistribute a portion of the BPD’s budget to local community-based mental and behavioral health programs and organizations focused on harm reduction to prevent crisis response in the first place.

Signed by 205 Social Workers and Mental Health Professionals