June 14, 2021

Van Hollen, Bass Reintroduce Community-Based Crisis Response Legislation

Bill Aims to Create Alternatives to a Law Enforcement Response in Appropriate Situations

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and U.S. Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.) reintroduced their legislation to improve our emergency response capabilities by creating systemic alternatives to police involvement in appropriate situations. Their legislation, The Community-Based Response Act, creates a new Community-Based Emergency and Non-Emergency Response Grant Program through the Department of Health and Human Services to establish programs to encourage local governments to develop additional options, beyond law enforcement, for certain kinds of community-based emergency response. The bill will help provide for the dispatch of professionals trained in mental and behavioral health, crisis response, or mediation instead of law enforcement. Too often, dispatching law enforcement to emergencies where a use-of-force response is not warranted has resulted in unnecessary escalation and tragic death. 

According to recent reports, this year, more than 50 people suffering from mental illness have been shot and killed by the police. Additionally, according to Washington Post data, more than one in five people killed by the police suffer from mental illness. A recent report from The Appeal also shows that in some jurisdictions police spend more time on mental health-related calls than on burglaries or felony assaults. And a Vera Institute of Justice analysis of 911 data from 5 localities found that non-emergency incidents were the most frequent type of call for service in each jurisdiction – and as many as 70% of 911 calls didn’t relate to any type of crime. We’ve already seen jurisdictions across the country successfully implement community-based emergency response programs, including in Eugene, Oregon and Denver, Colorado. In Maryland, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott recently announced a proposal to divert 9-1-1 calls that could benefit from this legislation.

“For decades, our nation’s approach to public safety has remained unchanged, despite the unnecessary tragedy this outdated system has left in its wake. It’s time to reevaluate our crisis response capabilities and, where appropriate, provide alternatives to law enforcement involvement. This legislation invests in community-based solutions to crisis situations that don’t require police to be the first responders. It will put the needs of our residents first, while ensuring law enforcement is available to respond to the situations they are trained for and best suited to handle. By taking a new approach, we can save lives and strengthen overall public safety. I’m committed to getting this done,” said Senator Van Hollen.

“Every year, hundreds of families call the police out of desperation when family members suffering from mental illness experience a crisis. In too many cases, law enforcement responds with unnecessary force resulting in injury or death. This legislation provides resources for an appropriate response. It is time to reform policing in this country and this bill is a part of that push. I encourage my colleagues to support this important piece of legislation,” said Congresswoman Bass.

The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

The legislation is supported by a diverse group of more than twenty advocates and organizations, including: National Urban League; NAACP LDF; NAACP, Baltimore Branch; University of Maryland, Baltimore; National Association of Social Workers; Coalition for Juvenile Justice; Citizens Policing Project and Beyond Youth Organizing; Justice Action Network; Center for Disability Rights; National Alliance to End Homelessness; National Homelessness Law Center; National Disability Rights Network; American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare; Greater Baltimore Urban League; Baltimore Crisis Response, Inc.; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; CASA; Aaron Maybin; Erricka Bridgeford; PolicyLink and the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color; TASH; Center for Public Representation; Vera Institute; National Action Network; The National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund; Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law; LifeBridge Health Center for Hope; and BUILD.

“Community responder programs allow law enforcement to focus on their core public safety mission, provide people in crisis with assistance from trained mental health and behavioral health professionals, and prevent encounters between law enforcement and people in crisis that can lead to tragedy. We’ve seen this model work in cities across the country, and this funding will allow more communities across the country to build on that success. We are grateful that Senator Van Hollen and Representative Bass have taken the lead on this, and we hope their colleagues from both sides of the aisle will join in the effort to promote public safety,” said Justice Action Network President and Executive Director Holly Harris.

“People with disabilities, particularly people of color with disabilities, are vastly and disproportionately impacted by police violence. Long-term solutions for avoiding these violent interactions between the police and the community are to develop effective non-police emergency response systems while building up a robust system of community services. This bill will undoubtedly move us in the direction of ensuring people who are better attuned to meet and respond to the needs of individuals with disabilities can respond to these emergency situations,” said Curt Decker, Executive Director of the National Disability Rights Network.

“The Community-Based Response Act recognizes that our communities can often be better served by providing a community-based mental health and behavior health response, instead of a law enforcement response. This will allow the police to concentrate their efforts on public safety, while people with mental health and behavioral health problems receive a more compassionate response,” said Bruce Jarrell, MD, FACS President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“Social workers and other health providers are frequently the most appropriate first responders for many calls to 911. We can reduce violent police encounters and better meet the needs of crisis callers by deploying professional social workers to address issues of mental health, behavioral health, homelessness, and domestic disputes,” said Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers.

“We are excited to see this legislation and the commitment Senator Van Hollen is making to community-based interventions for young people. An estimated 78 percent of young people who experience homelessness will have at least one contact with law enforcement. Community-based alternatives like those provided for in this bill are an important way to connect young people with mental health and other services they may need, while avoiding potentially traumatic and sometimes life-ending interactions with law enforcement,” said Naomi Smoot Evans, Executive Director, Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

“We salute Senator Van Hollen and Representative Bass for introducing this ground-breaking legislation. We have long known that a police response is not appropriate when a mental health crisis occurs. This bill will provide us with a much more appropriate and humane alternative,” said American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare Board Member Ron Manderscheid.

“When individuals are in emotional distress or experiencing a suicidal crisis, it is crucial that they receive effective responses and interventions. Too frequently, emergency medical and law enforcement personnel must respond to crises that they are not trained to handle. We applaud Senator Van Hollen and Congresswoman Bass for introducing The Community-Based Response Act to improve crisis response and connect individuals with needed services,” said Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“We deeply appreciate Senator Van Hollen's commitment to advancing alternatives to police responses to calls involving mental health crises and other situations. Far too many people with psychiatric disabilities, and particularly those who are people of color, have died or experienced needless incarceration due to avoidable contacts with law enforcement. Law enforcement should not be the default response to mental health emergencies,” said Jennifer Mathis, Director of Policy and Legal Advocacy, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

“The National Alliance to End Homelessness strongly supports The Community-Based Response Act and encourages its passage. This legislation would incentivize communities to address behavioral health crises with professional behavioral health or crisis response personnel, rather than law enforcement. This would free law enforcement to better do its job, and reduce unnecessary and inappropriate arrests of people experiencing homelessness or other crises in public. We thank Senator Chris Van Hollen and Representative Karen Bass for their leadership in introducing this very important bill,” said the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“For far too long, individuals with disabilities and other marginalized populations in our society have experienced bias, discrimination, and overwhelming trauma when encountering law enforcement and the justice system,” stated Cathy Costanzo, Executive Director of the Center for Public Representation.The Community-Based Response Act provides the extraordinary federal response needed to spur new solutions for public safety, bringing together communities in a shared commitment and collective responsibility to creating a new future that better supports people in crisis and decriminalizes challenging behavior once and for all.”

“Survivors of violence often need much more than an arrest and law enforcement based intervention to help them recover from trauma. Comprehensive responses to violence that include mental health intervention and social work case management supports communities with resources to not only curb and stem violence but offers experts who are trained in best practices. The Community Based Response Act establishes necessary options to complement and augment public safety,” said Adam Rosenberg, Esq., Executive Director of the LifeBridge Health Center for Hope.

“Far too often many parties are assembled at the table to discuss plans, developments, programs, funding and most importantly... ‘Laws & Policy.’ Yet most often the vital parties are never included around the table of decisions. We experience this year after year, administration after administration where the convening's ‘at the table’ never include the voices of those most strained by these table decisions. The best opportunity at resolution of these matters are simple with transparency, inclusion, and equality. As a child, my only recollection of officers were of ‘Officer Friendly,’ our softball and basketball coach who were officers (Officer Mitchell.) Our officers played a pivotal role in the education and sustainability of the communities they served. There was a mutual respect and ownership of one's area, interest and manner. When those vital points were present, de-escalation was minor. Today, officers are trained with more attention and hours dedicated to their life preservation than that of those ‘They vow to Serve.’ Mental Health Professionals are educated and trained 5-8 years in their profession to de-escalate and preserve the lives of those in trauma or a crisis situation. However, we have become married to designing systems where we send a ‘defensive-lineman’ to respond to a mental health crisis in their community.  These calls often result in a full crisis and loss for the entire neighborhood and community at large. This legislation is as essential as legislation that came out of the 60's Civil Rights Movement! We have demonstrated ‘Peacefully’ all over the nation with over 200,000 in Washington culminating marches to encourage change. The Senate and Congress must act now at this pivotal time as they did in the 60's that resulted in the Civil Rights Act.  We cannot continue without these necessary support services in our communities. Absent of them, we will continue to reap the discord with policing our nation. Our Congress and Senate must be accountable for correcting the policies that are incorrect, delivering the many lives lost. This is not a race or color Bill, it is a Human Rights Bill,” said Tiffany Majors of the Greater Baltimore Urban League.

“Community-based responses to crises are critical to the safety of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people with disabilities—and all those who are targeted by police violence. Communities and families that have been impacted by policing have always worked to create community-led safety solutions that support people in crisis, it is time for state and federal government to invest in these critical, life-saving programs,” said Marc Philpart, Managing Director, PolicyLink, and Principal Coordinator of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color.

“Community-based crisis response is imperative to creating better alternatives to public safety than our current system,” stated Michael Brogioli, Executive Director of TASH, a national disability rights and advocacy organization focused on promoting the human potential and civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “These models can help us address intersectionality issues of race, cognitive disability, and mental health so as to tailor strategies for individuals who, due to a disability or mental health illness, can get the appropriate supports they need in time of crisis and avoid the all-too-often horrible ending of life due to law enforcement professionals not being equipped or trained in how to respond to such complex situations.”

"For far too long, individuals with disabilities and other marginalized populations in our society have experienced bias, discrimination, and overwhelming trauma when encountering law enforcement and the justice system," stated Cathy Costanzo, Executive Director of the Center for Public Representation. "The Community Based Response Act provides the extraordinary federal response needed to spur new solutions for public safety, bringing together communities in a shared commitment and collective responsibility to creating a new future that better supports people in crisis and decriminalizes challenging behavior once and for all."