When should first responders call in mental health professionals?

With body cameras recording, two Newark police officers responded to a 911 call in Newark’s Central Ward early on the morning of July 4. The caller described the woman as being emotionally disturbed. While the officers awaited EMS arrival, they blocked the woman from walking away. The woman pulled out a knife and stabbed one officer in the left arm and the other in the right leg. They arrested the woman and charged her with aggravated assault and unlawful weapons possession and took her to University Hospital for evaluation. The hospital also treated both officers.

Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose has commended the officers for exercising “respect and professionalism” in handling the incident.

“In my opinion, they did a lot of things correctly. Talking gently with her, trying to calm the situation down instead of escalating it. It’s exactly what officers should be doing,” said Louis Raveson, a professor at Rutgers Law School who has successfully brought multiple cases against police for excessive force and misconduct. However, Raveson added that it might have been better to a call a mental health professional who may have been better equipped to deal with the situation.

Professor Maki Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the officers should not have blocked the woman from walking away. She said critics might argue that it’s unrealistic for police departments to dispatch mental health professionals the same way they dispatch officers. Haberfeld and mental health advocates espouse the view that that kind of thinking is a disservice to the emotionally disturbed and to the detriment of officers.

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