When Sterling Higgins called 911 for help during a mental health crisis in March 2019, it shouldn't have meant the end of his life. When Union City, Tennessee, police officers arrived, they arrested Sterling. Later in the Obion County Jail, sheriff's officers pinned Sterling to the floor and restrained him until he went limp and foamed at the mouth. He was declared dead less than 40 minutes later.
Higgins is among many individuals across the country, in Tennessee and in Chattanooga who have experienced unnecessary, often excessive police force in response to a mental or behavioral health crisis. To protect our neighbors and loved ones from experiencing similar treatment in our own city, the city of Chattanooga must allocate funding to establish Mobile Crisis Response Teams (MCRT), a reimagined form of public safety that will improve and protect community health and well-being.
Armed police officers are often the default first responders to mental health crises, and people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than others who come into contact with law enforcement.
But armed police officers are not the only option: Alternative first responders — trained crisis workers and social service or mental health professionals — are better prepared to de-escalate situations without involving the criminal legal system and can provide community resources that would support a person in crisis. These professionals have a deep understanding of mental health issues and often have trusted relationships with their communities.
My community has called for criminal justice reform, and when I ran for a City Council seat, I vowed to ensure that Chattanoogans' concerns would be reflected in our city budget. Mayor Tim Kelly committed to develop a team of alternative first responders within his first 100 days.
Many 911 calls do not require a police response. In fact, a recent survey of eight cities revealed that 23% to 39% of calls for service were low priority or nonurgent, or not necessitating police presence. Still, we continue to send the police to answer these calls. When we dispatch police to calls where their presence is not needed, we are not only wasting precious resources and officer time, we are also creating dangerous or even deadly situations for people in crisis who may not be able to communicate clearly or express themselves in a way that won't be read by law enforcement as threatening.
By watching the success of other programs across the country, we know that alternatives like the Mobile Crisis Response Team can work for the safety of our community. CAHOOTS, a community-based public safety system in Eugene, Oregon, is funded at 2% of the city's police budget and has saved the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually by answering 17% of the police department's overall calls. And out of 24,000 CAHOOTS calls in 2019, only 150 required police backup.
For Chattanooga's MCRT initiative to run efficiently, we are also calling on the city to allocate 2% of the current police budget. Not only is this approach a cost effective, equitable alternative to police response, it would also allow police officers more time to address the violent crimes that really do threaten public safety in Chattanooga.
The MCRT is just one initiative designed to protect and serve our city. In addition to this community-based response system, I am advocating for more allocations in the city budget to boost community safety and welfare, including programs designed to prevent gun violence among teens and young adults; expand assistance to those in our communities who are unhoused or homeless; and support services that aim to decrease the prevalence of substance use disorders in our community, including the ongoing opioid crisis.
As elected representatives in Chattanooga, we must listen to the calls of our constituents and reimagine what public safety looks like for the betterment of our community — and that starts with funding Mobile Crisis Response Teams.
Raquetta Dotley represents District 7 on the Chattanooga City Council, which includes Alton Park, parts of downtown, East Lake and St. Elmo. Contact her at email@example.com.