When a large black truck rushed into The Shoppes in Liberty City, Dr. Armin Henderson, megaphone in hand, poked his head out of the slightly open door.
“Did you know that if you call the police during a mental health crisis, you crave 16 times more to be shot and killed?” Henderson said, turning the heads of several shoppers. Alternatively, call us at 1-866-SAFE MIA.
His stats are from a 2015 Treatment Advocacy Center report which, although seven years ago, Henderson says remains relevant because it focuses on one major issue that shows police are ill-equipped to deal with incidents involving mental illness. Henderson, along with Freedom House Mobile Crisis team members Leslie Jackson and Muhammad, use it to get attention.
A few curious people approach the car doors when it stops and hear the trio talk about a new alternative to 911 that sends a doctor, therapist and conflict-resolution specialist in place of an armed police officer. The program is a relatively new idea in the Miami area, where the team started in mid-May. Similar models in Eugene, Europe and Dallas have seen success saving police departments and reducing arrest numbers.
Jackson, a social worker and therapist, said, “Really, we’re just here to help. It’s okay to get help. It’s okay not to be unwell. Everyone needs help sometimes.”
2021 Miami police call records show nearly 1% qualify as violent as defined by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. If other crimes such as domestic violence were included, the percentage would hardly increase. This 1% figure matches that of other cities with similar populations to Miami. People with documented mental illness have made up a fifth of all fatal police shootings since 2015, according to The Washington Post.
It’s in the name: Freedom.
The origins of the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program can be traced back to 1967. Disappointed with the quality of emergency medical care, a group of Black Pittsburgh residents formed the Freedom House Ambulance Service, which marked the first time that medical equipment and trained personnel had been in an ambulance, and set standards for treatment modern emergency.
Our goal is to remain independent,” said Mohamed, a conflict resolution specialist. “It’s in the name: freedom.”
The program is funded by a $900,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation to the Center for Healing and Justice Dream Defenders, a coalition of organizations including Dade County Street Response and Beyond the Bars and Circle of Brotherhood that provides a range of services from free health clinics to youth programs.
After months of planning, the Freedom House Mobile Crisis program began May 17 and operates Tuesday and Wednesday within a 5-mile radius of Liberty City. Their goal is to get more funding for several teams and go to other areas of Miami.
“I hope we will be able to operate 24/7 and be able to run welfare checks, trespass (incidents) and be able to answer all calls in this area,” Jackson said.
It also helps that many of these Miami organizations have established long-term relationships with each other, added Henderson, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami.
“This is the Dream Defenders project, but it’s not that we can’t refer you to the Miami Labor Center if you’re about to be fired or behind bars if you have a relative in prison,” Henderson said.
Less than a month into the program’s launch, Henderson, Jackson, and Muhammad are still focused on spreading the word about Freedom House’s mobile crisis programme. They go from store to store in Wynwood, handing out flyers. Chat with passersby below the Black Lives Matter mural in Liberty City. Try to distinguish themselves from the police.
People still see the big black van and automatically assume they’re the cops. That’s exactly what Jorge Rodriguez thought when he parked the car near the hangout under the Biscayne Boulevard tunnel near 36 Northwest Street. A homeless person wanting to return to his hospitality career, Rodriguez received a health evaluation immediately from Henderson and Jackson. The apparent mistrust began to wane when Rodriguez realized the team was not responsible for law enforcement, and said Freedom House’s mobile crisis program and the free clinic at the Healing and Justice Center could be a helpful step in his journey.
“It can put me on the right track, health-wise,” Rodriguez said.
The team’s record isn’t exhaustive – they only responded to one call from an older man who was more in need of housing assistance than an examination – but they expect more calls as words spread.
“Because of the mistrust of the police, it will take time for people to understand what we are doing,” Henderson said.
The program mirrors other community initiatives such as Crisis Assistance on the Streets, or CAHOOTS, in Eugene, Oregon, that have sprung up across the country due to police officers not being “health professionals,” said Alexis Piquero, a criminologist and chair of sociology at the University of Miami.
“A lot of cities are experimenting with this kind of program and I think it’s great,” Bequeiro added. “The more police and community partners come together, the better off we are. Crime and public safety is not just a police issue and it’s not just a societal issue: it’s everyone’s issue and we all have to work together.”
Launched in 1989, CAHOOTS responds to calls with two-person teams consisting of a medical professional and a crisis worker, both of whom have extensive training in mental health. The group says its work over the past three decades has been very cost-effective, noting that in 2019, police support was needed on less than 1% of calls, and Eugene saved nearly $8.5 million in police spending . CAHOOTS’ annual budget is approximately $2.1 million compared to the $90 million spent on police departments in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, where the Community Response Team primarily operates.
Unlike CAHOOTS, the Freedom House Mobile Crisis Team plans to limit contact with the police as much as possible. This means no coordination of response efforts, no conversations about whose tactics work best and virtually no communication.
As implementation of 988, the mental health equivalent of 911, approaches, Henderson wants to make clear that these programs should be independent of law enforcement. He says a reduction in the City of Miami’s spending of about $280 million on police would be beneficial.
“When crisis teams are integrated into police departments, studies have shown that care is inadequate,” Henderson added. He continued that government funding would be welcome, but not at the expense of police control over when and how they responded, especially in black communities. Henderson cited a “District Criminalization” study that found joint response models — programs that send mental health professionals alongside police — similar to the CAHOOTS program “prioritizing the central role of law enforcement” in mental health calls.
“If people have already been traumatized by the police at this level, why would you send the police?” Henderson said. “In black communities, it just won’t work.”
One example is the murder of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old father with a history of mental illness. Wallace was killed in October 2020 by two Philadelphia police officers. Video footage showed that he was holding a knife and walking toward the officers. He was told to drop the weapon several times. But he was also experiencing a mental health crisis when officers fired more than a dozen shots at Wallace.
If a similar situation arises, Henderson wants the police to be the absolute last response. Instead, the training model supports the Newark Community Street Team, a group of locals whose neighborhood policing has led to a record drop in homicides, and Aquil Basheer, a community interventionist who helps broker peace between the Bloods and Crips gangs.
“What it basically involves is de-escalation: understanding why the person is upset, understanding well what the person is experiencing, and then deciding how to make the person feel safe,” Henderson said.