By Ritney A. Castine | Mosaic guest columnist
Updated: Sep. 10, 2023, 12:56 p.m.| Published: Sep. 09, 2023, 6:30 a.m.
Vigil on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, for Andrew “Drew” Jerome Washington who was fatally shot by Jersey City police at his home on Randolph Avenue on Aug. 27. (Reena Rose Sibayan | The Jersey Journal)
As an ordained Methodist clergyperson with a notable two-decade career in the public health space, the recent tragic death of Andrew “Drew” Jerome Washington of Jersey City is triggering as well as traumatic.
While there will likely be internal and external investigations to evaluate the actions of the first responders and police, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of Drew’s death is simply that it should have never happened. Mental illness touches us all, crossing lines of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Historically, police have acted as the frontline responders to a growing mental health crisis. However, the rising cases of mental health crises do not require a criminal justice response, rather it requires a community-led response rooted in a public health and a restorative framework.
This is especially true in low-income and Black and brown communities. Social and political unrest, financial insecurity, health status and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have all contributed to an increase of intense physical, mental, and emotional stress, which leads to difficulty in effectively coping and functioning.
Additionally, there are realities specific to Jersey City residents like gentrification, the absence of affordable housing, gun violence, and changing demographics that can overwhelm us all.
In a city as tax rich and ethnically and culturally diverse as Jersey City, it is particularly devastating that the services available to individuals with mental illness are so severely lacking. Every 911 call does not require the response of someone with a gun.
Studies have shown that most 911 calls are for noncriminal matters that don’t warrant a police response. In instances where someone is experiencing a mental/behavioral health crisis, not only is a police response inappropriate, it has been proven to escalate and worsen the situation.
If we are to put a stop to the surge of needless and preventable deaths of Black people at the hands of police, then it is high time that the state supports community-led alternative responses free from police involvement or interference. There are examples of such responses throughout the nation and in our neighboring cities like Paterson, Newark and Trenton.
These models consist of a cadre of trained and competent professionals from the community employing best practices and proven de-escalation techniques that do not include the use of lethal force. We must work to ensure that crises are dealt with in a manner that is least damaging to individuals and most conducive to a peaceful and therapeutic outcome, a manner that centers a commitment to the preservation of life.
In April of last year, Jersey City’s council approved plans for a community crisis response team to deal with certain 911 calls. These plans have yet to be implemented. Why? And if they had, could it have saved the life of Drew on that fateful day? Communities across the state, believe that it could have and are calling for legislation that would establish community crisis response team pilot programs in target cities throughout the state. Assembly Bill 5326 passed in June, and communities are calling for its introduction and approval in the Senate.
As the state’s second most populous city, Jersey City should be a part of this program. It would certainly lead to a reduction of death and injury and would de-emphasize law enforcement’s ever-expanding role in dealing with individuals navigating challenges associated with living with mental health issues.
For the sake of families as well as the law enforcement community, we must find a better way.
Rev. Ritney A. Castine is the pastor of Mt. Pisgah AME Church in Jersey City.
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