Durbin: Federal Government Must Help Law Enforcement Respond to Disabled Americans

Chicago Police Department efforts highlighted as national model

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] - Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, today said that Congress and the Executive Branch should do more to help local and state law enforcement agents who have increasingly become the first responders for disabled individuals in crisis due to inadequate mental health and social services.


At a hearing to examine current efforts, Durbin highlighted the Chicago Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program which has trained an estimated 2,000 officers in the last 10 years.  Nationwide, localities with CIT programs are experiencing a noticeable decline in officer injuries, injuries to disabled citizens, and reduced detention rates.


“Due to inadequate mental health and social services, police officers have become the first responders for disabled individuals in crisis.  Law enforcement did not ask for this additional challenge, but it was forced upon them,” said Durbin.  “As is so often the case, states and local governments are leading the way in crafting innovative responses.  We saw today that CIT programs, like those in my home state of Illinois, work and their success shows the promise of approaches that are developed at the local and state level.  Congress should support these efforts.”


CIT consists of two critical components.  The first is training officers to recognize the signs of disabilities, and to de-escalate a crisis incident involving a disabled person in a manner that protects the safety of the officer, the public, and the disabled person.  The second is local law enforcement building relationships with the mental health and developmental disability communities.  These relationships are critical to finding support and services for a disabled person following a crisis incident. 


Witnesses at today’s hearing included: The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance Director, The Honorable Denise E. O’Donnell; Chicago Police Department First Deputy Superintendent, Alfonza Wysinger; Plano Police Department Sergeant, A.D. Paul; Fourth Judicial District of Minnesota Judge, The Honorable Jay M. Quam; Mental Health Advocate and Best Selling Author, Pete Earley; and the National Down Syndrome Society's Advocate of the Year and mother of Ethan Saylor, Patti Saylor.


Among the solutions discussed at today’s hearing are:


  • Passing the bipartisan Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, which Senator Durbin has cosponsored.  The bill reauthorizes the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act and authorizes grants for training law enforcement officers to identify and respond to incidents involving people with mental illness or substance abuse disorders. 


  • Data collection by the Justice Department on law enforcement’s interactions with the disabled, particularly where the use of force is involved.


  • The Justice Department issuing best practices on law enforcement interactions with disabled Americans, which could serve as a model for state and local law enforcement. 


  • The Justice Department taking steps to notify and educate state and local law enforcement about their legal obligations to disabled Americans.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement agencies to make reasonable modifications – including training officers – to ensure that disabled Americans are not subject to discriminatory treatment.  Earlier this month, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division found that a local police department was required to implement certain remedial measures to ensure that the Constitutional rights of Americans with disabilities are protected, including requiring all officers to participate in crisis intervention training.


The deinstitutionalization movement has led to many disabled Americans being released from state hospitals and institutions into their communities.  The strategy has led to the closing of many state institutions and a massive reduction of available in-patient beds.  Today there are only about 14.1 beds available per 100,000 people – the same per capita level as in 1850.  It is estimated that the country has lost 90% of its public psychiatric beds since deinstitutionalization began.


According to Durbin, while the goal of deinstitutionalization is laudable, there has never been adequate funding to allow local service providers to care for the disabled Americans who are living in their communities.  In recent years there have been draconian cuts in already meager public health budgets.  For instance, from 2009 through 2012, states cut their public mental health spending by $4.35 billion, which is the largest reduction since deinstitutionalization started. 


As a result of inadequate community services, police officers and sheriffs have been inundated with calls involving mentally ill persons.  And with the reduction in beds in state and local institutions, the default for law enforcement has been to put mentally ill people in jail.  As a result, our jails and prisons have become our mental-health institutions by default. 


In 2009, Durbin chaired a hearing entitled “Human Rights at Home: Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons and Jails,” before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. The hearing, which focused on the high rate of mental illness among U.S. prisoners, was the Subcommittee’s first hearing examining a domestic human rights issue.  Since then, he has chaired two hearings on the use of solitary confinement.  Nearly two-thirds of the inmates in local jails have a mental health issue.  An estimated 56.2% of the inmates in state prison have a mental illness, and 44.8% of inmates in federal prisons are mentally ill.