Staff Editorial: Once again, we need reform, not another public safety committee
Editor’s note: This article addresses mental health and mental health crises. Resources for those struggling are provided at the bottom of the article.
In March, we asked the University to take tangible action toward removing the Washington University Police Department from mental health crisis response. Yet here we are: The University is back to square one, and students will have to wait for change once again.
Washington University’s public safety committee first announced its recommendations to reimagine WUPD’s involvement in mental health crises in February 2021. In May, we saw the University promise to partner with a local provider to create a system wherein mental health crises calls are responded to by mental health professionals, not WUPD. Now, six months later, we have seen little change: Police officers still respond to campus mental health crises. After the long-awaited partnership with an outside mental health provider, Behavioral Health Response (BHR), failed to come together over the summer, the University plans to create another task force to advise on the implementation of the public safety committee’s recommendations.
With last semester’s public safety committee taking five months between creation and the generation of a plan, it’s once again unclear when and how further progress will be made. The failure to partner with BHR is not an excuse to give up or continue to push back these essential changes. We don’t need another committee — we need action.
WUPD officers are not sufficiently trained to tackle mental health crises. And they are never going to be. Mental health crises are complex and difficult to navigate, and they deserve proper responses. As Tennyson Holmes, a student on the public safety committee, told Student Life in the spring, “For so long we’ve always thought if we could just give [police] more training, then the problem would solve itself over time. But the issue is… it’s never going to substitute for a degree in social work or a degree in counseling.” And even the training the University promised in its May announcement still seems to be missing. Part of the implementation of the public safety committee’s recommendations involved training for the WUPD dispatch team, yet the WUPD training website currently just says “Under Construction…”
Beyond a lack of training, a significant number of WashU students, especially students of color, have expressed not feeling safe around WUPD officers. While 68% of white respondents reported feeling comfortable during interactions with WUPD, that number was just 50% for Black respondents and 55% for Hispanic or Latino respondents. That lack of comfort potentially deters students from seeking aid in moments of crisis, making hard situations even more difficult.
As Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration and Chief Administrative Officer Shantay Bolton told Student Life this month, WUPD gets an average of two mental health crisis calls per month. But that number does not account for those who may hesitate to call because of distrust in the police. Mental health crises are happening on our campus, and as long as police officers are the responders, these crises will continue to be approached with an inadequate amount of training, and some may be left unaddressed due to hesitations to call WUPD.
The University has implemented some structures that address mental health concerns, such as TimelyCare, which has partnered with the University to provide supplemental online mental health services. However, TimelyCare, in its online format, cannot provide aid in mental health crises that require in-person intervention; that role is still left to WUPD. This service does not address the promises made in February’s public safety committee. Existing programs like WashU Cares are helpful for connecting students to resources, and TimelyCare is an important addition to student well-being on campus, but as long as WUPD remains the option for in-person crisis intervention, both students’ concerns and the University’s promises remain unaddressed.
Directing police officers away from mental health crises should not be an unattainable goal. Throughout the country, various cities are reconsidering the role of their own police departments in mental health crisis response as more evidence emerges of the benefits of dispatching mental health providers instead of police. In Anchorage, Alaska, the city has created a program that pairs mental health clinicians with paramedics to respond to mental health crises. New York City has noticed improvements in mental health crisis response when approached by mental health specialists instead of police officers. Additionally, Washington University’s own Brown School of Social Work has partnered with the city of St. Louis, aiming to provide social workers and mental health professionals as responders to mental health crises in the city. The growing success of these partnerships proves that the administration continues to be behind the times in prioritizing the safety and comfort of undergraduate students in crisis.
While WUPD remains the only University resource for direct intervention in a mental health crisis, students still have the option to call BHR to receive care, which can be a valuable alternative for those seeking mental health help. However, BHR functions separately from the University, which does not solve the need for the current WUPD response to be replaced with trained mental health professionals — a promise made by the University back in May.
WashU: If you care about your students, it’s time to reform your mental health crisis response — not by creating another committee, but by making changes now. No more stalling and no more empty promises.
Behavioral Health Response (BHR) is a Missouri organization that provides crisis support, telephone counseling and mental health resources. They can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-811-4760.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24/7. They can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/.
The Steve Fund, an organization dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color, has a 24/7 crisis text line that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741741.
The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQIA+ individuals, can be reached by calling 1-866-488-7386, texting START to 678-678 or online at thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now/.
Staff editorials reflect the opinion of the majority of our editorial board members. The editorial board operates independently of our newsroom and includes members of the senior staff.
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