By: Radiah Jamil and Julianne Hill
Four officers from the Walnut Creek Police Department in California arrived at Taun Hall’s home just minutes after she called 911, seeking help for her son Miles who was experiencing a mental health crisis.
For years, Hall had been developing a relationship with police in preparation for an emergency call like this, hoping it would be met with compassion. Miles was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and during the previous year, his hallucinations and delusions came and went. During that time, Miles’s mom learned as much as possible about the disease and made sure police knew of her son’s condition.
But on June 2, 2019, 23-year-old Miles broke a sliding glass door with a crowbar, thinking that it was a staff, or stick, from God. When the officers arrived, they saw Miles as a threat and the tool as a weapon, and two officers fired their guns at him, killing Miles.
Communities around the country are reimagining their responses to mental health emergencies. Congress has mandated a new three digit hotline – 988 — an alternative to 911 designed to handle mental health emergencies, ranging from people with suicidal thoughts to those with hallucinations. It will launch this July. With the change, many communities aim to shift the response to mental health emergencies from the hands of law enforcement to mobile crisis teams staffed with trained mental health professionals.
In 2021, more than 20% of 911 calls involved either a mental health or substance use crisis, according to the American Psychological Association.
“We hear endless stories about families who call (911) in distress because their kid is having a psychotic episode or some other kind of a mental health condition that’s frightening,” says Vincent Atchity, Mental Health Colorado president and CEO.
That typically summons police.
“Somebody who’s experiencing a psychotic episode, or is in some kind of altered state based on their mental health condition, does not necessarily respond well to scary-looking individuals coming into their homes, and barking commands at them,” he adds. “And when police orders are not readily complied with, they apply the tools that are most familiar to them–and that is asserting control over a situation by laying on hands, or using other implements of control like tasers, sticks, or guns.”
Advocates say they hope the implementation of 988 will include providing around-the-clock access to mental health professionals for those in crisis, integrating a care system to prevent suicides, and offering mental health care rather than jail cells.
Despite the federal mandate, each state must hammer out legislation and funding and communities must develop their own 988 system.
As of March 8, California is one of 12 states with pending 988 legislation. Four states – Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Washington – enacted 988 infrastructure bills with a fee. Four states–Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Utah – passed 988 legislation without fees. In two states – Idaho and Montana – 988 bills failed to pass.
With the July deadline looming, even states with enacted legislation are falling behind. The new hotline faces many hurdles, including coordination of crisis responders, shortages of qualified mental health professionals and sustainable financing.
Without the funding and infrastructure, calls to 988 could still be funneled to police departments.
Since early 2021, The Miles Hall Foundation has been advocating to enact California Assembly Bill 988: The Miles Hall Lifeline Act—988 Suicide and Mental
Health Crisis Hotline. The bill would provide live-saving services in the state to those experiencing mental health emergencies and thoughts of harming themselves or others through the implementation of 24/7 crisis counseling, access to stabilization and recovery resources, and the deployment of trained health professionals instead of law enforcement.
Along with shifting responsibility of mental health emergencies to trained professionals, the foundation is “aggressively advocating for officers to have more de-escalation training,” said Alexis Hall, Miles’s sister and co-founder of the foundation.
“California police officers generally have about eight hours of required mental health training,” she said. “They barely scratch the surface of what is needed to de-escalate and care for those in altered and heightened mental states. Yet with their minimal training, they also have the power to determine if someone is in need of psychiatric hospitalization.”
If a situation doesn’t require law enforcement response because of a criminal concern or because of the level of danger, most officers feel that their service is not needed because they cannot offer clinical support, said Ron Bruno, Salt Lake City-based executive director of CIT International, a first responder training for police to help people with mental disorders or addiction access medical treatment rather than the criminal justice system.
The officer has three choices, Bruno said. One is to make a determination whether that person meets statutory criteria to take them into protective custody and transport them someplace for further evaluation and stabilization. The second is to arrest the person on a criminal charge and take them to jail. The third is “ leave the person there without any true clinical support or assistance.”
To fund the “mobile crisis infrastructure,” that could include outreach teams including mental health professionals and peer support, the California state budget allocated $150 million dollars in 2021. Of that larger budget, the $20 million dollars was set aside to go specifically toward supporting the 988 network.
Funding would come from a proposed telecom fee of up to 80 cents per phone line. A monthly fee of 30 cents per customer would generate $195 million annually, according to The Steinberg Institute. But these types of fees around the country are controversial as the telecom industry pushes back hard, insisting that the lowest possible charge be levied.
In an April 14, 2021, letter of concern from CTIA, a telecom industry group told California legislators that “the 988 fee should be limited to funding equipment,
communications services, and direct costs for crisis hotline center personnel for 988 call taking and appropriate call routing.” Just as 911 surcharges on phone bills “do not fund police, fire, or EMS,” the 988 fee shouldn’t pay for mobile crisis teams, stabilization and other follow-up services, the industry group said.
In July 2021, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, including senators from Oregon and Connecticut, fired back with a letter expressing concern over reports that telecommunication lobbyists were aiming to suppress “efficient implementation of 988, both at the federal level and in states and local communities across the country,” for the sake of lowering 988’s service fees.
“If successful, these efforts would limit the ability of states to establish and maintain the call centers staffed by trained individuals, mobile crisis teams, and crisis stabilization services that are all fundamental to breaking the cycle of suicide,” the senators said.
Despite the challenges for California and other states, the promise of the new national call line offers hope to families, who want care and not jail cells – or
drawn guns – for their loved ones in crisis.
“If we had 988, the new federally mandated mental health crisis phone number to call, Miles would most likely be alive today,” said his mother, Taun Hall. “We need a preventative approach that doesn’t criminalize our loved ones with police response.”
Radiah Jamil is a incoming freshman at St. John’s University in New York and a student-reporter with Youthcast Media Group (YMG). Julianne Hill, an award-winning mental health reporter, is YMG’s managing editor.