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Thank you, Rebecca [Neusteter]. It’s great to join everyone today.
I want to thank the University of Chicago Health Lab for all their work bringing us to this moment, and especially for their tireless commitment to equity in our nation’s emergency response system. Thanks, as well, to the workgroup co-chairs and members for putting together a thoughtful blueprint for transforming our 911 network.
I’m also grateful to the Orleans Parish Communications District for serving as our hosts, and to everyone attending today for your interest, for your contributions and for the vital role you all play in responding to public safety and public health emergencies in communities across the country.
I have the great privilege of leading an office that is dedicated to supporting and improving community safety and well-being. The Office of Justice Programs awards grants, we provide training, we support research and we offer many other forms of assistance, all in an effort to build safe communities and serve the cause of justice. In our work, we are constantly making the case that public safety including emergency response is not the responsibility of law enforcement alone.
As we all know, in many cases, community emergencies whether they’re drug overdoses, psychiatric episodes, people struggling with homelessness are not simple law-and-order matters. But over time, we have, as a nation, created a system that has placed the burden of responding to emergencies on law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs.
What we’ve found, however, is that when we treat every emergency as a threat to public order, we see all emergencies from the lens of the criminal justice system. Instead of getting people the help they need and referring them to treatment and services, we often arrest them and sometimes lock them away. The outcome is far from ideal.
We have developed a habit in our country of criminalizing substance use, mental illness and other societal problems, and this has been counterproductive from both an individual wellness standpoint and from a public safety perspective. It’s time — past time — that we acknowledge the damage we are doing and change our approach.
Jurisdictions across the country are discovering in these calls for service an opportunity for intervention. A number of cities are deploying innovative co-responder models that pair treatment providers and health professionals with law enforcement on 911 calls.
For over two decades, our Bureau of Justice Assistance has managed the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program, which supports cross-system partnerships that improve responses to individuals in crisis. Just last year, we launched a new effort under this program called Connect and Protect, aimed specifically at supporting crisis response strategies built around collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral health professionals.
I think we need to continue investing in these strategies and be open to expanding partnerships between the justice system, the health, substance use and mental health fields, and community providers. This collaborative approach has worked well in other areas of public safety for example, in helping people who come out of our prisons and jails re-establish themselves in their communities. Over the course of my career, I have been very active in promoting effective reentry as a solution to community safety challenges on the back end, and I’ve seen that these partnerships work.
We can, and should, take a similar approach on the front end, encouraging cross-disciplinary cooperation in our emergency response systems. In jurisdictions that use co-responder models, people with serious mental illness are getting treatment in the community and avoiding jail. And by not depending so heavily on law enforcement resources, some cities are saving substantial money or refocusing law enforcement energy to where it’s most needed.
We have a number of resources to help jurisdictions adopt these efforts. Our 14 Law Enforcement Mental Health Learning Sites provide peer-to-peer support to help agencies develop response models tailored to their own problems and circumstances. In partnership with the Council of State Governments and the University of Cincinnati, we’ve also created an interactive map showing how the nation’s 70 largest cities are tackling these challenges.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach in responding to community emergencies, but we are on the right path when we view these crises from a wider lens, not as police actions, but as community challenges. A just and equitable society and ultimately, a safe society is one in which we are meeting basic human needs without resorting to unnecessary and inappropriate punishment and without inflaming community tensions.
I applaud your commitment and look forward to joining you as we build an emergency response system that is fair and effective and that reflects the dignity and humanity of everyone it serves.