In a feature article about mental health issues and the relative lack of police preparedness to deal with such issues, NBC News interviewed Professor Juan Rios, director of the Masters of Social Work program and noted his work with retired police officer and Director of the Police Graduate Studies program, Professor Thomas Shea.
Professor Shea, who spent years as an Internal Affairs Investigator, last year published 115 Proven Ways to Dramatically Improve Your Agency, Your Officers and Your Leadership. He and Professor Rios are in the midst of conducting research designed to better understand the current dynamics of policing through observation as well as in-depth interviews with members of the South Orange Police force.
This research, along with community and stakeholder input, is intended to inform the "reimagining of policing" in South Orange through the Community Care & Justice initiative, a collaboration between Seton Hall, South Orange and Essex County which Professor Rios directs along with South Orange Village Trustee Donna Coallier.
The Community Care & Justice (CC& J) initiative is premised on a wide body of research that establishes viable alternatives to certain aspects of traditional models of law enforcement as well as health and public safety. CC&J is focused on introducing these alternatives and augmenting the status quo with methods that stress the overall health and wellness of the community – including the use of social workers and community teams to engage with residents who may be experiencing mental health crises, substance misuse, homelessness, domestic violence or racial inequities.
Demonstrated successes achieved in South Orange through the program will in turn be scaled and replicated in other Essex County communities and likely beyond.
In the NBC News article, "Policing mental health: Recent deaths highlight concerns over officer response," Professor Rios pointed out the greater likelihood of Black men experiencing episodes of mental health distress to be killed by police officers. NBC News writes,
Juan Rios, an assistant professor who directs the master of social work program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said the statistics are higher for Black men than for other major demographics.
Last month the journal Annals of Epidemiology said in an analysis that police are more likely to shoot and kill unarmed Black men who show signs of mental illness than white men who exhibit similar behaviors.
Rios said that is partly because Black men are least likely to get treatment for active mental health diagnoses among major demographics. Men ages 18 to 27 are also less likely to be treated, he said.
"You intersect all of those factors and you have Black young men who are most at risk who may not be in treatment," Rios said. "And the reality is also Black men are more likely to be deemed as a threat than any other demographic."
Professor Rios also noted the relative paucity of police training in mental health support and crisis training. NBC News notes,
"When we look at why folks are ... more likely to die at the hands of police officers, it's that their training focuses more on marksmanship than it does on mental health support or crisis work," he said. "A badge and gun should not be the first one to address a nonviolent mental health crisis call."
Rios and his colleague Tom Shea, a former police officer who is director of the Police Graduate Studies Program, are trying to counter that by working with communities on 911 divergence so that in nonviolent situations, people can call mental health professionals before they call police.
Rios said they will provide community-based training in deconstructing stigmas.
"Often times what happens is our own implicit bias says that if there's a Black man who's in distress or in crisis, he must be on drugs, versus a white person who is in distress or in crisis needs help," he said. "So we're looking to educate the community on being more cognitively flexible about who is in distress, who needs help and how to access resources."
Rios and Shea are working with communities in South Orange, New Jersey, with plans to expand their project elsewhere.
The article, "Policing mental health: Recent deaths highlight concerns over officer response," is available via NBC News or Yahoo News, which also ran the story.