Despite projections, Oklahoma City Police responded to fewer mental health calls in 2020 than the previous year. 

Police were on track to answer a record number of mental health calls last year. But mental health calls dipped slightly in 2020, according to reports requested by Oklahoma Watch.  

The department received 19,481 calls last year — down from 19,658 in 2019. 

Capt. Jeffery Pierce, commander of Oklahoma City PD’s mental health unit, said people spent more time at home in response to COVID-19, which likely resulted in fewer calls. 

But the flaws in the system remain. 

A recent Oklahoma Watch investigation found that incidents involving individuals with mental illness or substance abuse have nearly doubled since 2013. 

More Oklahomans are in need of treatment. But funding for low-income and uninsured residents lags, leaving thousands without access to counseling and medication. Untreated mental illness often leads to 911 calls and state law requires police to respond. 

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The risk of being killed during a police encounter is 16 times greater for individuals with untreated mental illness, according to a 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center. 

Public interest in these calls peaked last month after an Oklahoma City man was fatally shot by police. 

Bennie Edwards, a 60-year-old black man who sold flowers on the street and suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was killed by officers responding to a disturbance call at a strip mall.

Edwards had a knife and officers had already used pepper spray and a taser before Master Sgt. Keith Duroy and Sgt. Clifford Holman shot Edwards, police said. Neither officer has been trained in crisis intervention — a voluntary program that provides 40 hours of mental health training to officers. 

Cadets receive 16 hours of mental health training at the Oklahoma City Police Academy. And state law requires a minimum of four hours for certified officers. 

As mental health calls rose, the time spent training officers to respond remained the same. 

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter and visual storyteller at Oklahoma Watch with an emphasis on domestic violence, mental health and nursing homes affected by COVID-19. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or wbryen@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.


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