Professor Juan Rios, director of the Master's Program in Social Work at Seton Hall, was featured by NJ.com and in the Sunday Star Ledger regarding the need to incorporate an understanding of mental health issues into police training and response.
The op-ed, entitled "When cops overlook mental health issues, there can be deadly results," looks at the case of Maurice Gordon, an unarmed black man from Poughkeepsie, New York, who was shot and killed on the Garden State Parkway by a New Jersey State Police officer.
Professor Rios is also a director of the East Orange Summer Work Experience Program, which, in addition to teaching area youth employment and business skills this summer, also devoted substantial classroom attention to civic engagement. The East Orange students took what they learned and led a protest along with Jamila Davis and Tamika Mallory on behalf of Maurice Gordon that garnered national and international attention. Articles on the protest appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Taiwan News and a host of other media outlets around the country and the world, as well as here in New Jersey via NJ.com and WPIX11.
The students called for an independent investigation and prosecutor on the case as well as:
1. Release of non-redacted audio and visual evidence of the killing of Maurice Gordon;
2. Release of the autopsy and toxicology report by the medical examiner to Dr. Michael Baden, the famed forensics authority who led the autopsy for the family of George Floyd;
3. A fair and impartial grand jury hearing without delay.
Professor Rios, who is working with the City of Newark to make social workers, mental health services and training more readily available to first responders and its citizens through the Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery, cited other systemic concerns with the case. In the feature op-ed, he writes:
The tragic death of Maurice Gordon is a bright red flag. That flag was unfurled and waved in full bloody view during the events that led to yet another unarmed black man's death at the hands of law enforcement.
As I watched the videos of Gordon's interactions with police, as a practicing social worker I cringed at the missed opportunities to get him the help he most obviously needed.
But those red flags were overlooked on the Garden State Parkway on four separate occasions when police officers stopped Gordon.
If we continue to overlook the signifiers of mental distress and mental health issues those flags will just get redder with the blood of those we could have saved. Granted, police officers are not social workers, but you don't have to be a doctor to know somebody needs one.
The Maurice Gordon case is a prime example of how mental health issues are overlooked in everyday interactions between law enforcement and the public due to a lack of adequate training and/or a lack of experience with, or an understanding of, available resources.
Before I speak further about what should have happened, let me lay out the case of why it should have happened and the compelling reasons that our first responders need to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of mental distress and mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, that's nearly one in five adults. Of these 46.6 million adults, 11.2 million, roughly one in four, are said to suffer from Serious Mental Illness. And yet, we seem surprised and, as the Maurice Gordon case showed, thoroughly unprepared for the interaction of the police with those who suffer with mental health issues.
Given the sheer numbers, is it surprising that police officers as first responders might come into contact with any one of these 46.6 million people during the course of their patrol? With any of the 11.2 million that are said to suffer from Severe Mental Illness?
Perhaps it will seem even less surprising if we consider the serious lack of treatment for mental illness in the United States. Whether due to the stigma still associated with mental health care or a lack of health insurance, the number of untreated looms large. In 2017, among the 11.2 million adults with Serious Mental Illness, only 7.5 million (66.7%) received mental health treatment in that past year.
That's 3.75 million people with a Serious Mental Illness who received no treatment during an entire year.