Government and governance, Law | Australia

16 March 2021

Paranoia in response to a demand to defund police rhetoric is unhelpful – it should be viewed as an opportunity to protect police from mental health call-outs that should be handled by specialists, Vern White writes.

What is driving fear of defunding Australian policing, and why is it being called for in the first place?

First, some context. Since the 1990s, police have been taking on primary responsibility for responding to and dealing with mental health crises. This has been driven primarily by the de-institutionalisation of mental health care, which over many decades has been separated from phased-out psychiatric institutions and into the community health landscape.

This movement into communities is a sincere attempt to provide people with mental illnesses the chance to live with less stigma and more access to community care, with detention reserved only for the most acute cases of danger to self and others, or those who have committed serious criminal acts.

Most experts believe that this is a more appropriate approach to mental illnesses and allows for a normalisation of mental illnesses in society and greater standards of care.

While the intent of bringing as many people into the community as possible was certainly in the best interest of all involved and has had many advantages, funding for mental health care has not been sufficient, leaving Australians suffering with mental illnesses severely under-cared for.

More on this: Mental health policy at a crossroads

This has in turn is regularly putting them in at-risk situations. Importantly, these situations now happen in the community, not behind closed doors.

As they are rightly taught, Australians are used to calling for police intervention when they feel unsafe, but as these situations became more common, police are being called to mental health crises more and more over time.

This meant that instead of the health care system providing help for these people, they are all too often being managed by a policing system that is not well-equipped to meet their needs.

On top of this growing problem, a growing heavy drug use problem is hitting Australia, increasing calls to police to manage people having dangerous drug-use episodes or those impacted by drug-induced psychosis.

There are two serious problems with the police taking the lead in dealing with mental health.

More on this: What would it mean to defund the police?

First, doing so immediately criminalises mental illnesses, as interaction with the police regularly finds itself in the police agency file system and has many other long-term effects.

Second, having to interact with on-duty police can be traumatic to someone living with a mental illness and can quickly escalate into a violent interaction, even when managed well.

In essence, a perfect storm over the last several decades has seen the police become in part a mental health care response unit. An inability to gain either capacity or capability in this area then meant that many calls were responded to poorly, hurting both people with a mental illness and the police attending to them.

We have seen over the past 25 years that many calls have resulted in violent situations, where someone who was interacting with police negatively because they were ill, not because they were criminals, have been harmed or even killed.

The public has seen all this and are asking the right questions in their demand for a change in the response to mental illnesses. As the defund discussion grows it is timely that the police embrace it as a growing demand for a change in how mental health calls are managed.

Indeed, many police have been complaining for decades that this is not the way to manage Australia’s mental health and it’s becoming clear that the public agrees.

Rather than allowing this to become a gap between the police and the public, it should be embraced by police leadership. This should be framed as defending the police, and freeing up their resources to do what they are really trained for, preventing criminal activity. It is also a chance to call for more properly funded mental health resources in the community.

This is not a question of what the government can afford, it is a question of what it cannot afford. Australia cannot afford to properly fund either only the police or only mental health services – both are fundamental to protecting the wellbeing of its people.

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