Lawsuit Challenges DC’s Response to Mental Health Crises

August 30, 2023

Early last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of DC and the law firm of Sheppard Mullin sued DC on behalf of Bread for the City (Bread). The lawsuit challenges the city's use of police as first responders in mental health crises. According to the suit, this practice harms people with mental health disabilities. The complaint explains that police officers “are mainly trained to arrest and detain people suspected of crimes, not to handle mental health emergencies.” As a result, police often handcuff and use excessive force against people in crisis. Sometimes, police involvement even leads to criminal charges against people in crisis. This response ends up traumatizing, rather than helping, people with mental health disabilities.

The lawsuit compares DC’s response to mental and physical health emergencies. Trained medical professionals, such as paramedics and EMTs, respond to the latter. Therefore, people experiencing physical health emergencies receive appropriate and needed services. This is not the case for people experiencing mental health crises. The complaint argues that this difference is a form of discrimination against people with mental health disabilities.

Bread staff have learned that calling 911 in mental health crises is not effective. According to the suit, calling 911 "puts the client at risk of harm and reduces the trust that the client” has in Bread.  Therefore, the non-profit has had to train its staff to respond to these emergencies instead. In total, Bread’s staff spends over 300 hours a year responding to mental health crises. To do so, staff have to cancel scheduled appointments, harming Bread’s revenues and disrupting clients’ treatment plans. This limits the organization’s capacity to provide food, clothing, and legal and social services to low-income DC residents.

This lawsuit joins ongoing advocacy from local organizations, such as DRDC’s Jail and Prison Advocacy Project and the Crisis Response Coalition, engaged in mental health and criminal justice advocacy.

Side profile of a DC Metropolitan Police Car. Text reads: “We are here to help” above the Metropolitan Police logo.
Source: Washington Post. Image description: Side profile of a DC Metropolitan Police car. On the shaded window of the white SUV, white text reads: “We are here to help.” Below the window sits the red, white, and blue logo of DC’s Metropolitan Police.

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