Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director issues statement on behavioral health response

Calls for non-law-enforcement teams to respond to non-violent emergencies related to mental health.

The Director of King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, Tamer Abouzeid, issued a statement in response to the announcement made by King County officials that more investments will be made to support the mental health needs of King County residents.

The statement read as follows:

Taking care of our people’s needs is the best way to ensure public safety for all; on the other hand, involving law enforcement can escalate situations that can better be addressed by other professionals. When it comes to mental and behavioral health, that means we need the right people to respond, we need them to respond the right way, and we need to be able to provide services to those who need them after contact is made.

I call on the newly announced coalition to implement a system where non-law-enforcement mobile crisis teams are the sole first responders to non-violent emergencies related to mental health or illness, poverty, and/or substance use. These professionals can make informed decisions on whether they need to involve other responders.

The STAR program in Denver County, Colorado, which diverts calls away from law enforcement, results in almost no arrests and no calls for police backup. Similarly, the system in Maricopa County, Arizona, handles most cases without involving law enforcement — it also gives law enforcement personnel the chance to expeditiously drop off community members who may benefit from treatment or intervention.

The success of any program will also depend on the availability of short-, medium-, and long-term services focused on mental health, substance use, and poverty. That means investing in walk-in clinics, outpatient and inpatient treatment, housing, material support, and more.

By diverting calls away from law enforcement and to the best equipped professionals, we can improve public safety for all while reducing incarceration and alleviating the strain on law enforcement hiring and retention.