Study finds promise in program that pairs cops with mental health experts

A D.C.-based think tank’s analysis of a New Jersey initiative that connects police with mental health experts found that nearly every call resulted in no arrest or use of force, and with little racial disparity.

But the statistics come from a small sample size, the researcher behind the study stressed, while criminal justice reformers caution that it is too early to declare the 18-month initiative a success.

The findings come as New Jersey grapples with the aftermath of a deadly police shooting in Paterson on March 3, when police killed local activist Naji Seabrooks, whose relatives say he was in the midst of a mental crisis when police shot him. After Seabrooks’ murder, Attorney General Matthew Platkin took over the city’s police department.

During a 90 minutes of conversation with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Platkin said pairing cops with mental health experts in parts of the state is critical to rebuilding the trust that has been broken between communities and law enforcement.

“The key is to listen to the community and form that partnership so that they don’t learn about a program when a moment of crisis arises — that there’s involvement from all sides: law enforcement, health services, the community, stakeholders, and ultimately my office,” he said.

New Jersey’s initiative — Arrive Together, which stands for Alternative Responses to Reduce Violence and Escalation — pairs a plainclothes police officer with a mental health counselor or community screener in an unmarked car during designated mental or behavioral health conversations. It launched in Camden County in late 2021 and later expanded to Elizabeth and Linden. It is soon expanding to 10 more counties.

The Brookings Institution — where Platkin once worked — analyzed 342 calls between December 2021 and January 2023 and had access to police reports and other data.

Arrive Together teams responded to most incidents during the day, and two out of three callers were male, according to the analysis. The average age of the callers was 41, with the majority of calls coming from 911.

Most callers were black and Hispanic, 39% and 35% of calls, respectively, and 26% were white callers. The study found that while racial disparities were prevalent in police uses of force, data from the program “demonstrated no significant differences” between race, gender and age.

The majority of encounters did not result in an arrest or use of force, according to the study. The low rate can be attributed to the team’s work to de-escalate situations and provide mental health expertise, the study said.

Rashon Ray, a senior fellow at Brookings, writes learninghighlighted the Arrive Together program as an example for other states to follow and said it was critical to report more unified data on responders and callers.

“The lack of complete demographic data may actually weaken how effective the program is at reducing, and in some cases eradicating, racial disparities in police outcomes,” he said in the study.

Ray suggested that Platkin’s office collect demographic data on officers and counselors who answer those calls and ensure that people are properly classified. He also urged Platkin to create a coding scheme to track which mental illnesses people may be experiencing and to share more data to compare Arrive Together responses to typical law enforcement calls.

Not everyone is happy yet. Marleena Ubel of the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective noted that the Brookings researchers looked at data from just a few cities in a densely populated state over 14 months. There needs to be more data to claim success, she said.

“It’s really hard to come to those conclusions and make that claim with incomplete data,” she said. “Looking at this panel, if I hadn’t read the report, I would have assumed that there was no evidence of racial bias going on in the Arrive Together program, and I think it should be noted that that is a claim that simply cannot be done more.”

Ubel noted that she did not hear a single person utter the phrase “arrive together” during a community listening session,” hosted by Platkin last week in Paterson. Instead, she said she’s heard people press Platkin fire police officers involved in the Seabrooks shooting and call for less law enforcement response to mental health calls.

“I heard them say there should be a lot more action and a lot less talking. I’ve heard them say they want more funding for their own community-led organisations,” she added.

Platkin declined to comment on Seabrooks’ slaying during his call Monday, but said last week’s event in Paterson demonstrated the need to restore trust in the city between residents and cops.

“I think we have a lot of work to do, to listen and develop a program … not just ‘here’s what they have to say,’ but to involve the community in the design of the program. I’m committed to that and I think everyone who works with us is,” Platkin said.

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