Medical Examiner

When Calling the Police Results in Harm, Not Help

Charleena Lyles’ death is a stunning reminder that calling the cops—even for someone who needs help—can be risky.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by zozzzzo/Thinkstock
The people tasked with responding to these emergencies reinforce a system that can be violent toward the people most in need of help.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by zozzzzo/Thinkstock.

Early last week, Charleena Lyles was killed by police after she called them to report a burglary. Lyles had mental health issues that were known by the police officers. This knowledge did not prevent them from shooting her.

Lyles’ death was a frightening wake-up call for me—a reminder that for many people, the police showing up isn’t always a relief. This was troubling to me because I have often called on the police to help people in need. Last year, I worked for several months at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a position in which I occasionally had to call the cops for assistance. I have no doubt that NSPL has saved lives; survivors themselves have told me that it has. Every single person I met at the many local call centers was well intentioned and truly wanted to help people.

But one frightening thing about the NSPL is that one of the protocols designed to save people’s lives could, for some, create greater risk: I was trained to call the police on people that I thought were at imminent risk for suicide who could not be calmed through other means. “Imminent risk” meant they had a plan, and means easily accessible, and intended to kill themselves within the next few hours. There was a protocol where we would use different ways to try to get an idea of the caller’s location and then call the local police force, let them know the situation, and help them try to find the person. We were trained to try to get the police to use technology to try to locate the person. We would also give the police any information that we knew about the caller, such as whether they had a gun and where it was. (E.g. was it in their hand? Locked in a safe in another room?)

Calling a rescue wasn’t something that happened often, but it also wasn’t infrequent. On a four-hour shift, typically there was at least one rescue call made by one of the two or three people working. This wasn’t a once in a blue moon thing, it was a regular part of the job. The NSPL states its policies on “Active Engagement” and “Active Rescue” on its website. For example, it explains that Active Rescue “requires that staff take all action necessary to secure the safety of a caller and initiate emergency response with or without the caller’s consent if they are unwilling or unable to take action on their own behalf.” In situations where we were calling without consent, we would usually not even tell the person that we had called a rescue until the police were there.

Like I said, this protocol is well-intentioned. The intention is to help people in need. But as those of us from marginalized communities know, being well-intentioned is not enough. Without awareness of how white supremacy can manifest, we (white folks) are destined to reinforce it. And the way we talked about and deployed police intervention—as if it was an unequivocal good—felt to me like it was missing important context and nuance.

I wasn’t taught to consider how the police might react differently to different people based on skin color, mental health, and other factors. I didn’t know how to incorporate that into my analysis of whether I should call or not. We were not taught about cases like Jack Lamar Roberson, Quintonio LeGrier, or Kevin Davis—people who were killed by police after calling 911 for assistance. (All three were black men.) I don’t think that most people know that a call to the hotline could end up with the police at their door. You have to get pretty deep into the NSPL’s website to find that.

When I would bring up my concerns about our policy, it was usually met with my colleagues and supervisors saying something along the lines of, “at least the person will be alive to be mad at us.” This might be true. It also takes for granted the idea that the police will be less violent than the person. In the wake of Lyles’ death, I’m reminded once again that this is not always the case, especially for people of color and people with mental health issues.

I reached out to NSPL to ask about this. Chief Clinical Officer John Draper responded by explaining that calling the police really is a last resort, and NSPL strives to alleviate crises before this point is reached. The program is effective at helping people who are at imminent risk before police intervention becomes necessary, he explained, citing a 2015 paper that showed three-quarters of callers who have been assessed as being at imminent risk end up actively engaging and collaborating with volunteers, making police intervention unnecessary. “Keep in mind, these are the highest-risk callers, individuals where most other health or mental health providers would be inclined to call the police to help if a crisis center were not available,” he said. “In these higher-risk callers, Lifeline is typically able to facilitate collaboration with the caller to keep him/her safe.”

He also noted that local crisis centers have relationships with local law enforcement, “many of whom are engaged with training officers in response to persons with mental health problems.”

Draper is right that NSPL is doing critical work to help people before things escalate. In an emergency when you think someone is going to kill themselves, it is natural—and even laudable—to try to do anything you can to help to save them. I believe the NSPL is trying to do the best it can with the resources available, and overall it is helping. People in crisis should certainly call the hotline for help, and they should ideally also know the full scope of the services and interventions available.

There are no easy answers here. In an ideal world, we would have more robust mental health services and community response teams trained to de-escalate crises and support folks dealing with suicidality. But in the meantime, for people of color and people with mental health issues (and for a suicide hotline, people with mental health issues are the norm, not the exception), we need to at least be aware that calling the police could introduce more risks than rewards.