In its annual budget proposal, Oklahoma City officials allocated $300,000 to reinvent the city’s response to mental health 911 calls. But few details are known about the initiative, which seeks to minimize police involvement.
Working on the details are Mayor David Holt’s Law Enforcement Policy Task Force and the Community Policing Working Group. The groups are made up of city officials, activists, religious leaders, current and former law enforcement and counselors. They were formed last summer in response to concerns about local police practices and protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer. The groups are charged with studying crisis intervention training for law enforcement and alternative responses to mental health calls among other topics.
Assistant City Manager Kenton Tsoodle, who is the community policing group’s facilitator, said they plan to make recommendations to the City Council this summer but not in time to secure funding for the upcoming fiscal year. The proposed amount is a placeholder for the changes likely to be presented in July, he said.
The total proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is $1.65 billion. Funding for the mental health initiative is part of the general fund and did not impact the police department budget, which is $228 million.
Another $1 million from the general fund provides a second reserve for recommendations from other task forces and working groups on human rights, homelessness and policing that are expected later this year. It is unknown how those funds will be used, Tsoodle said.
Last year, an Oklahoma Watch investigation with StateImpact Oklahoma found that the city’s mental health calls have nearly doubled since 2013. In 2020, Oklahoma City police responded to 19,481 mental health emergencies.
More than 40% of individuals in crisis were handcuffed, put into the back of a police car and taken to a hospital or for treatment. Few were arrested. The remainder were left alone to cope after officers determined they were not a danger to themselves or others.
Many officers and mental health experts say police should not be answering these calls. The risk of being killed by an officer is greater for individuals with untreated mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
In December, Oklahoma City officers fatally shot Bennie Edwards, a 60-year-old black man with a history of mental illness. Sgt. Clifford Holman has been charged with manslaughter in the incident.
Changes to the city’s response could include pairing police with mental health experts. Or it could mean avoiding police interaction all together for non-violent calls, similar to the Support Team Assisted Response program that launched in Denver last summer.
City Councilman James Cooper, who is on the task force, applauded the allocation during a nearly four-hour budget meeting Tuesday.
City Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon remains uncertain that $300,000 is enough.
Hamon has a degree in social work and worked with individuals who were mentally ill at a homeless shelter after college. She is currently the education coordinator for Mental Health Association Oklahoma. She recalls two instances when she watched as officers detained a client who was having thoughts of suicide.
Hamon fears the money won’t support the change needed to overhaul the city’s treatment of people in crisis.
“Putting them into the back of a police car with bars in it criminalizes mental illness,” Hamon said. “There are a lot of levels of change that need to happen here and I’m not convinced we’re putting forward a robust commitment to that.”